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Achieving Excellence In Operations

Requires Operator Support…

Many organizations have appointed a leader to initiate an excellence philosophy for operations and the first thing they discover, improving operations is a major challenge for most managers. Indeed, multiple pressures – competition, more stringent regulation as well as investor and stakeholder expectations – are driving leaders to focus heavily on improving operations as a means to boost productivity. However, while more companies are pursuing operational excellence initiatives, few are succeeding in their efforts. Traditionally, large capital investments in new technologies have been considered the answer. However, in our experience, we have seen that achieving excellence in operations does not always require major capital investment. Instead, companies would benefit from a proven operations management system driven by a culture of continuous improvement. With this in place, it is possible to identify and execute targeted tactics that lead to significant savings.

Since the early 1970’s process industries were faced with an alarming number of incidents causing undesired effects ranging from reduced profits to loss of lives. Industry began doing studies into the causes of these incidents and found that human factors had a significant impact. From the alertness level of operators, to poorly designed alarm systems and operator interface, to inappropriate staffing levels, to poorly designed work environments, human factor issues were a significant contributor to major and minor incidents. Abnormal situations encompass a range of events outside the “normal” plant operating modes, e.g. trips, fires, explosions, toxic releases, human error, or just not reaching planned targets. Abnormal Situation Management is a comprehensive process or system for improving performance which addresses the entire plant population. It promotes effective utilization of all available resources—i.e. hardware, software, and people, to achieve safe and efficient operations.

Early work of the Abnormal Situation Management Consortium included a survey of the US petrochemical industry. The consortium estimated that there were losses of approximately $20 billion per year from abnormal situations. Plant surveys showed that incidents were frequent with typical costs ranging from $100K to well in excess of a million dollars per year. For example, one plant surveyed, had 240 shutdowns per year at a total cost of $8 million dollars. The study revealed that these incidents were preventable but major changes in the control room and  management systems had to be made.

Almost all industrial processes are controlled by operators using dozens of graphic screens. The graphic designs are typically little more than P&IDs covered in hundreds of numbers. This traditional, “low performance” Human Machine Interface (HMI) paradigm is typical in all processes controlled by DCS and SCADA systems. It has been shown to be lacking in both providing operator situation awareness and in facilitating proper response to upsets. Poor HMIs have been cited as significant contributing factors to major accidents, including fatalities. HMI improvement has become a hot topic. The knowledge and control capabilities now exist for creating High Performance HMIs. These provide for much improved situation awareness, improved surveillance and control, easier training, and verifiable cost savings.

Operator graphics that are designed based on P&ID’s do not support situation awareness because traditional graphics were designed without an ergonomic philosophy. Poor graphic design adds to workload, increases frustration, stress, and confusion, and can ultimately impact safety, reliability, production, and profitability.  A properly implemented human-computer interface can reduce operator work load, improve situational awareness, and aid the operator in preventing minor deviations from becoming major incidents. A well implemented human-computer interface can improve operator performance in problem detection and resolution by as much as 25%.  This reduces the amount of time the plant is running at less than optimal efficiency, thus improving the bottom line.  This also reduces operator stress and improves employee relationships.

The effectiveness and performance of your operators is effected by the environment, tools, and management systems. It is important to compare your current situation to best practices and identify where gaps exist. Future changes to your control room, interfaces, management systems, and staffing levels introduce a significant element of risk to the operation of your facility and by addressing several elements upfront we believe we can ensure that future changes have a positive impact on the safe and efficient operation of your facility. By defining a project scope up front and creating a plan for forward direction, your team will be aligned with project goals and industry best practices to ensure a safe and productive migration. Our goal is to help you identify issues and make important decisions before any changes are made, so that you get it right the first time, maximizing your return on investment.

It is important for process and discrete manufacturers and suppliers alike to focus on tools that improve the interaction between systems and operators, as there will be a significant shortage of operators within the next five to 10 years.  Even in today’s economy, it is getting harder for manufacturers to recruit new operators. Manufacturers need to retain their current operators and their skills, as well capture the knowledge of their skilled, soon-to-be retirees. This operator shortage is due largely to the perception that operations is not an attractive career path. By providing operators with a comfortable, stimulating work environment, manufacturers can help to change that perception.

Maximizing operator effectiveness is essential to minimize the risks of accidents, eliminate unscheduled downtime and maximize production quality. The global process industry loses $20 billion, or 5 percent of annual production, due to unscheduled downtime and poor quality. Ian Nimmo estimates that almost 80 percent of these losses are preventable and 40 percent are primarily the result of operator error. There is also direct money to be made in the control room. Ian expresses that improved ergonomics means improved KPI and metric results.

Many control rooms do not provide the operator with a good overview of the process, and the environment is not always optimized for the operators, leading to fatigue related incidents, human error that causes 40% of abnormal situations during production. Human-machine interface (HMI) displays often are not large enough, leading to eye strain. Live video and other external applications are not integrated with the displays, resulting in control rooms with many different types of terminals and interfaces with unsynchronized data.

There has always been a need for a good visualization overview of the process. The ergonomic focus must be on the operator tasks, not on the technology. Large screens must be interactive and close to the operators. The operator area must be secured from outside visitors. All furniture must be ergonomic and adjustable for individual needs. Lighting and noise level must be optimized for the operators. All non-essential computers must be removed from the control room. Break areas, meeting areas and even exercise areas should be integrated in the control room design, when possible. It is equally important to integrate applications, as synchronized and appropriately contextualized information is necessary for operators to make fast and correct decisions. A single, uniform environment minimizes the need for operator training. In this type of environment, all information can be presented on any screen at any time, including live video, documentation and operator instructions, and maintenance and production data.

Our vision for achieving operational excellence stresses a single, unified information environment for the operator, as well as the ability to present information in context to the right people at the right time from any point within the system. Operational excellence requires systems that provide operators with a good, common overview of the plant operation, with online KPIs and continuous improvements, as well as operator training and simulation tools. Context-sensitive navigation should provide operators with quicker access to data, presented in an ergonomic environment based on human factors. Systems should support multiple monitors and large screens designed for both remote and mobile connectivity. Systems should also provide synchronized alarm management, built-in documentation management, tested and verified solutions, asset optimization tools and live video capability. Increased HMI ergonomics and design can have a positive impact on operational performance, as well-designed HMI screens enable operators to be more effective and make the right decisions more often. Manufacturers should provide operators with the opportunity to participate in the design and implementation of both HMI and control rooms.

UCDS is the leader in human factors research involving control room operators. We developed a user (human) centered methodology to study the operators moves, pains, strengths, and weaknesses to develop the best solutions for improving operator performance and effectiveness. By focusing on the operator tasks we can reduce workload, alarms, design a better control room, console, and HMI graphic system that meets best practices and yields great results. By now you’re very familiar with alarm management, high performance graphics, theater style control rooms, large overview displays, and the standards like ISA 18.2 – ISO 11064 – and ISA 101 but you’ve not fully achieved excellence in all those areas. You admit, there’s room for improvement. If only you had more resources, support, and guidance. So where do you start, how about the heart of operations, educating the control room operators. We know this works. If you help operators understand the benefits and reasons for improving their environment, interfaces, and management systems they will become your biggest supporters. Many engineers struggle to get operator support and that makes it harder to get resources from management. That will change once the operators understand how much easier their job could be. They will start pushing for changes. This will help with justification and resources.

Once operators understand the difference between data and information, human factors in operations, and ergonomics that enhance situation awareness they will push for change. Education should incorporate the research of the Abnormal Situation Management Consortium as it applies to operator situation awareness, best practices and international standards. Operators need to see examples of how information is displayed in a manner that facilitates understanding and recognition of abnormal operating conditions. They need to understand how these best practices will make their jobs easier and more effective. Getting operators to drink the cool aide is not easy. The best way to do this is by educating operators, so they not only understand why change is better, they actually accept the vision and long term objectives. We want operators involved with design but first they need to understand the big picture. Operators need to understand why these standards work. Our training program works across multiple shifts, for operators, shift supervisors, engineers, and management. Once everyone is trained, the company can achieve a united vision and develop a plan to achieve excellence in operations. Start with the heart of operations, the operators, get their support and ride the momentum to excellence.