Analysis: What becomes of the operator?

By Control Engineering Staff May 2, 2007

As control systems become more sophisticated and integrated and software takes over more functions, the role of an operator will continue to change. This is nothing new and probably dates back to the first time a paper chart recorder eliminated the need for an operator to write down the process temperature. As different types of software cover more of the space between sensor and enterprise, and as these platforms become more integrated, operators’ responsibilities will evolve in response.

These thoughts came out of two discussions within the last few months. The first was a Webcast from last January with Honeywell, ARC Advisory, and Syncrude Canada . The second was a Both are available online.

Summarizing the discussions, the consensus is that operators’ tasks will continue to become more sophisticated. When the system(s) automates busy-work, operators don’t run a process, they manage it. But what does this actually mean?

* When an operator doesn’t have to watch and fiddle with individual loops, he or she can think more about the process as a whole. Are we doing the right things from an economic standpoint? (How does one tell?)
* When loops are more self-adjusting and generally stable, one operator can oversee more of them. In some cases, operators have doubled the number they can oversee and still keep things on an even keel.
* More stable processes, thanks to control improvements, give operators time to work on higher priority tasks, whatever those may be. The nature of this will vary from location to location.
* Operators are often in the best position to evaluate process constraints. When a process is running smoothly, it’s time to examine assumptions about the limiting factors. Which are real? Which can be exceeded safely?
* But above all, operators need to be there and able to intervene in a crisis. When something goes haywire, a human being still needs to be able to step in and run things by hand.

Operators will always have to respond to alarms and keep the systems honest. As sophisticated as control systems get, they can’t match our intuition. Plants with any degree of complexity still need the human touch.

—Edited by Peter Welander, process industries editor, PWelander@cfemedia.com , Control Engineering Weekly News (Register here and scroll down to select your choice of eNewsletters free.)