Is a New Control Room in Your Future?

Some companies are evolving control rooms into operations centers and locating them further from process areas. Success requires ability to identify, understand, and address the unique challenges arising when large distances separate team members.For the most part, today's control rooms evolved from advances in instrumentation and control systems, but the evolution is not over.

By Dave Harrold, Control Engineering and Ian Nimmo, Honeywell IAC May 1, 1999


Process control & instrumentation



Human factors engineering

Information systems

Wireless communication

Sidebars: Casual factors identified in accident investigations Learning from NASA

Some companies are evolving control rooms into operations centers and locating them further from process areas. Success requires ability to identify, understand, and address the unique challenges arising when large distances separate team members.

For the most part, today’s control rooms evolved from advances in instrumentation and control systems, but the evolution is not over. Availability and flexibility provided by microprocessors is accelerating usage in intelligent distributed control and business systems.

During every technology evolution, it’s necessary to periodically evaluate to ensure investments are delivering the expected and possible values. Control rooms serve as “theaters” for investments in technology, thus usage evaluations are beneficial.

Business mergers, downsizing, rightsizing, and subscribing to latest business trends have dramatic impact on operational units. Reasons to examine the roles of control rooms and their occupants in these evolving business environments include the following:

Management’s drive to “push” decision making down in the organization justifies a review of information availability to ensure accurate and timely decisions can be made by those empowered to make them;

Marketing and operations communications need to rapidly exchange potential new customer requirements to “close the sale;” and

Customers and suppliers request need to talk directly with operations personnel regarding shipment sizes, delivery schedules, modified product specifications, and quality issues.

But not all considerations to review control room usage come from business demands. For example, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Washington, D.C., USA) is encouraging companies to minimize the number of personnel in direct proximity of hazardous processes. OSHA also is examining the effectiveness of personnel attempting to mitigate emergency situations from a control room located in or near the area experiencing the emergency.

Regardless of reasons, a decision to consolidate and/or relocate control rooms to form business centers requires careful analysis and implementation of human factors and technologies to achieve desired results.

Human factor considerations

Opponents to moving control rooms and operators far from the process argue this causes a loss of contact with co-workers and the process. It’s important to recognize and appreciate the benefits gained in casual or informal conversations between field and control room personnel, then develop alternative methods to preserve the benefits.

Too frequently accidents or mistakes are made because communications occurred but understanding did not. When people are separated, formal and informal communication must equate to understanding and agreement by everyone involved. For example, undefined acronyms and mnemonics can lead to misunderstanding that may not show up until too late. If acronyms (or icons) are used on graphic displays, additional means should provide the full meaning to be displayed.

Human reliability has also been directly linked to ergonomics and environment. Studies indicate that reducing noise levels, especially background noise, simulating sunlight, and permitting short (15-20 minute) naps dramatically reduce fatigue.

Relocating operations centers can be especially traumatic for supervisors, managers, and team leaders, especially those who subscribe to a “management by wandering around” style. Success can hinge on how comfortable workers and supervisors feel about not seeing one another several times a day.

In many companies “self-managed” work teams fill a supervisor’s role, but quantifiable team performance must somehow be regularly conducted to identify weaknesses and maximize strengths. Assessing how teams are assembled, structured, and trained when deploying re-mote operations centers is critical to success.

When control rooms are close to the process area, it’s common for control room operators to be responsible for maintenance activities occurring on their shift, but that responsibility may need to shift to someone else when remote operations centers are established.

Relocating operations centers provides opportunities to consolidate control rooms and increase operators span-of-control. That means operators must analyze information and take appropriate action in less time. This is only possible if the information can be understood on “first-read,” and appropriate actions are intuitive and provide positive feedback. For example, operators should be able to “tweak” a final control device without interrupting the automation solution.

Physical limitations should be included in human factor evaluations. For example, personal computers can provide thousands of colors, but some people are colorblind. Relying on color to communicate important information can be disastrous.

Analysis of human factors is an emotional but necessary exercise; but before solutions are developed, understanding how technology contributes to the solution is equally necessary.

Technology considerations

Video matrix walls show well at trade shows but adoption in control rooms has been slow. Used wisely they could become a great tool.

Today, training and problem solving in a control room can be very disruptive. In the future, collaborative problem solving in operation centers will occur more frequently and will involve customers, suppliers, and business leaders, but not necessarily in person. Designed for just such activities and located adjacent to the operations center, work pods with video matrix walls provide a bigger view of the process, permit side-by-side comparisons of data, support video-conferencing, and manage the privacy and disruption to others sharing the operations center space.

Anytime an investment can be shown to have multiple uses, funding is easier to obtain and resistance to “cannibalize” equipment is greater.

When work pods and video matrix walls are combined with dynamic process simulation tools, work pods become multi-use space for operator training, process analysis, new control strategy testing, and evaluation of operational procedures, which help improve safety, develop operational flexibility, improve product quality, and increase profits.

In the past, dynamic process simulations have not lived up to expectations. That’s changing.

Sophisticated simulation and modeling systems, such as Honeywell’s Hi-Spec Solutions Trainer system, provides capability to speed up and slow down simulations or increase complexity as trainee proficiency improves. Robert Scott, advanced control engineer, Conoco/Pennzoil Lake Charles, La., shares, “Operators don’t have opportunities to startup, shutdown, and experience emergency situations very often. High fidelity dynamic simulations allow operators to experience events they might not be involved in for years.”

Sometimes things change so quickly we recognize them as a “step change,” but evolution is not as easily recognized. Chemical and equipment technologies, measurement and control technologies, and automation advancements are clearly progressing in steps, but where business decisions are made is evolving. Perhaps it’s time to evaluate control room usage to ensure people, equipment, and information are harmonized to reach maximum performance and profit.

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Casual factors identified in accident investigations

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA, Washington, D.C., USA) analysis of 10 years of aircraft accidents where death occurred, identified “casual factors” contributed to over 50% of all aircraft accidents.

Similar factors frequently appear in industrial accident investigation reports. Perhaps industry could benefit from methods used and lessons learned by the FAA.

Inadequate procedures;

Inattention to management procedures;

Misunderstanding of management procedures and instructions;

Insufficient coordination with other team members;

Team members and/or management fatigue; and

Poor information transfer between management and team members.

Learning from NASA

One reason many early industrial automation computer implementations did not meet expectations was the insistence on implementing “fully automatic” programs. Complex control strategies were implemented as “black box” controls with little thought on how operators could “participate.” Eventually operators figured out how to get the controls in manual, and processes performed nearly the same way as before the computer system existed.

What operators ask for, but seldom received, was the same thing NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Houston, Tex., USA) engineers struggled with during early stages of the Mercury program. Should astronauts be passengers or should they be participants?

Eventually NASA decided astronauts should be provided what became known as “fly by wire.” Momentary pushbuttons were electrically connected to flight control elements (boosters) and astronauts could energize any element anytime they felt it was necessary, and they could do so without disabling automatic control programs.

Today, “fly by wire” capability is standard on commercial aircraft and a few second and third generation industrial automation control systems now provide operators with “fly by wire” capability.

As automation opportunities increase and are deployed closer to the plant floor, permitting ways for the operator to remain a participant is important.