Changing the face of process control for a new generation

Like it or not, younger workers coming up now are vastly different than the graybeards. Companies can try to resist changes or find ways to embrace a younger generation and improve operating results.

By Jack Gregg July 9, 2014

With a large number of experienced plant operators expected to retire in the next few years, it is imperative for the process automation industry to attract a younger generation of employees accustomed to using high technology in their personal lives and career settings. The new breed of operators will have different expectations for automation systems, and use technology to explore optimization opportunities like no other generation.

This discussion will try to describe how the quality of HMI (human-machine interface) design affects not just the human operator, but also the productivity, efficiency, and profitability of the entire plant. With the generational shift of control room personnel, manufacturers have an opportunity to leverage the unique skills and talents of "millennial" workers (those born after 1980) to realize improved performance across process operations.

Technology for plant operators

The job of an operator is important during the commissioning, operational, and extension phases of a plant’s lifecycle. Operators gain valuable insights by closely monitoring indicators of process performance and safety. However, many industrial organizations worldwide expect most of their experienced operators to retire before 2020.

Almost as serious as the loss of human assets is the loss of institutional memory-from operators who know their plants intimately and understand the moods, quirks, and intricacies of their processes and equipment. Companies risk losing a lot of knowledge and specialized expertise unless they take steps to capture it.

The current state of plant control typically involves seating operators at consoles for 12-hour shifts and then asking them to make critical decisions that impact their company’s production and employee safety. Operators are burdened by big data sets and the collection of information that is not communicated clearly or visually. Instead of being simplistic in design, instantly recognizable, and compellingly readable, HMIs all too often present critical information that looks ambiguous and is difficult to understand.

In the coming years, the role of a plant operator is going to be more like an airline pilot. He or she will have access to all kinds of data, information, and knowledge, and the job will be more about making higher-level decisions on the fly than about information-gathering exercises. The operator will get a lot of assistance from computer and communication systems.

The new age of millennial operators

Studies have shown that the emerging industrial workforce tends to be more comfortable with modern computer technology than their more seasoned counterparts. They are also more attuned to the touchscreen interfaces of iPhones and iPads, and are typically more familiar with wireless devices of all kinds.

To some degree, drawing lines between different generations of control room operators depends upon the year an operator was born. Older generations don’t always trust the complex visual images provided to them on the operator console, and those born as part of the millennial generation don’t trust viewing the plant without them.

It’s clear that industrial firms must prepare for the changing landscape of their plant operations staff. Younger operators get their information differently than their more experienced coworkers. They want response almost immediately. They absorb information in a new way and want it quick and to the point.

Looking at the habits and lifestyles of millennial generation operators, the most dominant subjects become social media and video game technology. The baby boomers are about to retire and we are entering the days of tech-savvy "gamers."

The new breed of operators will come with a set of skills, which, if recognized and accounted for, can be utilized to maximize their effectiveness. Best-in-class companies will provide a work environment that younger personnel are both adept at and enjoy, thereby ensuring greater productivity and retention of knowledge transfer initiatives.

Rethinking the control room

Today’s transformation of the control room HMI is similar in magnitude to moving from panel boards to supervisory computers with new context-based visualization technology. Modern operator consoles require less process manipulation and logging, and provide the tools for more business decision-making.

As distinctions between plant technologies break down, the automation industry is rethinking the capabilities to offer within an HMI. That means looking not just at the traditional role of visualization, but also at data transformation and the real relationship between the machine and the human.

In many ways, the revised notion of a control room isn’t limited to the control room at all. This concept is illustrated through technologies like mobile devices using wireless networks, which extend the control room to the field.

Improved user-friendliness, expanded functionality, high cost-efficiency, and optimum integration into automation and safety systems are key goals of HMI developers. These solutions must deliver more than just visible information; they need to make that visible information more easily actionable. Advanced visualization tools will help to fortify less-experienced engineers and operators. Plus, younger personnel are eager to adopt new technology.

Increasingly, HMIs are building in capabilities for rich media such as photographs, PDFs, and live video. Displaying photographs instead of simple graphic representations can bring increased clarity for the operator. The ability to display live video might show where an equipment malfunction has occurred, leading to increased productivity. The growing deployment of Ethernet-enabled video cameras on processes and production lines can support crucial tasks such as work-in-progress visualization and product traceability, as well the more traditional function of machine vision.

Another area of HMI development is improved presentation. What operators need is the ability to see instantly, at a glance, the visual indicators that show operating limits, alarms, and operating zones-not only current but future. And they must know the most profitable zone within a set of limits, in which to run the process. Operators will also benefit from the ability to pan and zoom for a better look at a plant’s process, as well as carrying a tablet around with them, which is linked to the machine. Such devices-functioning as a remote control-allow the user to remotely access various types of graphics and review them in almost any location.

In addition, new collaboration solutions for the control room-evocative of the way millennial-age workers interact through social media-enable faster responses to both routine and emergency situations by providing a common view of how distributed assets at multiple locations are functioning. This allows plants to rapidly establish communication among centralized operations, field operations, and operational specialists in separate locations.

Advancing HMI technology

Global automation suppliers have the responsibility for preparing tech-savvy engineers and operators to run process plants. The goal is to lure bright young people into manufacturing industries-which are already short of skilled workers. Plants have a growing need for an educated labor force that can think quickly, collaborate with others, and understand math, engineering, and computers.

In many ways, the automation industry was compelled to adopt open systems to accommodate the current generational transition. It’s difficult to imagine a computer science major coming out of college working on a legacy, 1970s-era DCS. Younger workers are accustomed to using Microsoft operating systems and all the associated applications. It is inherent in their childhood and education. Visualization of complex interactions is the norm for them.

The challenge for automation suppliers is to future-proof their control system technology by avoiding complacence with established, well-accepted products. They must continuously advance their solutions to ensure they are delivering state-of-the-art systems at all times.

For example, researchers and designers have spent time studying human factors with control room operators around the world. They observed their behavior and collected insights on HMIs during process start-up, when facilities were in abnormal modes of operation, when plant trips had occurred, and when multiple operators used stations. This "voice of the customer" feedback has led to significant enhancements to operator console design.

Much of the work on human interface solutions is focused on improved ergonomic design and better displays to simplify control system management, reduce operator fatigue, and improve situational awareness. Rather than spend hours seated at a personal computer, younger operators seek mobility via portable wireless devices delivering the same HMI data as machine-mounted screens.

At the same time, the natural user interfaces found on smartphones, tablets, and similar devices are now being applied to process control systems, allowing operators to control a plant directly on the system’s HMI screen surface rather than using a mouse and keyboard. This kind of technology, popular in gaming systems, enables control room personnel to use gestures to manipulate controls more effectively. They can quickly and accurately respond to changing conditions and prevent situations that could lead to plant incidents and emergencies.

Modern consoles have also employed large, high-definition displays that provide clear status assessments of process operations in a single glance for better and more-informed management. This flexibility permits operators to customize displays for context-specific process issues. Furthermore, advanced alarm management and pan-and-zoom capabilities are now incorporated in HMIs, with limits and targets directly integrated into overview displays. These features enable operation of the process closer to the optimum and allow operators to assume an increased scope of responsibility across the industrial facility.

While graphical representations of P&ID diagrams are commonly utilized for process industry HMIs, plants are finding that operation from boundaries is a better approach. Control room consoles with a simple, color-coded light bar indicating process boundaries are preferable to forcing operators to remember their boundary settings and deal with the distraction of multiple horns signaling abnormal conditions.

Lastly, some of the most significant advancements in HMI technology are intended to liberate operators from their chairs by allowing them to move about the control room more freely. When paired with wireless-enabled mobile technologies, they enable operators to view the same displays on handheld devices in other areas of the plant.

Operators’ responsibilities in process plants have continued to grow, but they often must use the same outdated control room consoles and displays for many years. This situation is complicated by the retirement of experienced workers with intimate knowledge of process operations, and the emergence of a new generation of control room personnel accustomed to high technology.

The objective of any HMI improvement effort should be to convert process operators into business operators, giving them better information in better context, so they can have improved situational awareness, make smarter decisions, and run closer to their process limits for longer periods of time.

Jack Gregg is director of the Experion marketing team for Honeywell Process Solutions.

Video: Is the plant just a big video game?

The online version of this article includes a video with Jack Gregg in which he discusses how younger operators who are used to playing video games must come to grips with the reality of plant operation. Games have no consequences, but making a bad decision in the real world can be catastrophic.

Key concepts:

  • As baby-boomer generation operators begin retiring in large numbers, they are being replaced by a new generation that has a much different way of interfacing with technology.
  • Automation companies are investigating how to make their ways of interfacing with operators more in line with the ways these younger people want to work.
  • Companies that do not adopt to such changes will likely have a hard time recruiting and retaining younger people in a competitive hiring environment.


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