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.


Among recent product developments, Honeywell uses a pair of 50-in. 4K resolution screens to provide a very high level of graphic detail and clarity. Conventional keyboards and mice are replaced with touchscreens. Courtesy: Honeywell Process SolutionsWith 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.

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