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Control Room Evolution

It never ceases to amaze me when I walk into a control room and see environmental conditions that are contributing to poor operator situation awareness. A vast majority of our present-day control working environments are a result of evolving a room that was based on 1950s design technology. Some of the control room renovations we encounter are on their third, maybe even fourth remodel since the initial construction of the building.

To understand why we see the poor conditions of our control rooms today, we need to take a brief look at the history of the evolution of control rooms. 

Evolving a 1950s control room designed for long panel displays, and then modifying them for computer control with DCS is the root problem. These buildings are characterized by cramped conditions and inadequate lighting. The lights are often turned down very low or completely off due to reflections in computer displays and contrast issues that result from dark screen backgrounds (black) against light walls.

Back in the day, operators had a large and properly laid-out view of their process. They could scan instruments and use pattern recognition to identify when gages were not in the optimal position. They could easily lean in and identify problems before the alarms activated. They were proactive vs. reactive.

Before the introduction of DCS, the early control rooms were designed for long pneumatic panelboards and eventually modified due to changing technologies, evolving those rooms for computer controls with the introduction of DCS.  Eventually, the panel boards went away. However, the rooms designed around the older technology stayed the same. The result was a room shape not conducive to the operator consoles, adjacencies, and user HMI.

With the introduction of DCS, it was typically the DCS provider who designed the graphics, resulting in what we commonly see today: graphics resembling P&ID’s with black backgrounds. This led to more and more screens, which led to more and more alarms. Operators had so many screens, they relied on alarms to alert them when they had a problem. The result of this reactive approach was equipment being run in an abnormal state and even an emergency state. The black background caused glare in the lighting, thus lighting in the control room was dimmed.

Our operators are shaped by their environment. Many of the control rooms we see today harm the operators; a result of evolving a control room in an industry that has drastically changed over the years. The key is to identify the control room and operator shortcomings and understand how we got here.

Implementing good environmental conditions surrounding the operators can assist with focus on their tasks by becoming more proactive and responsive with their operating units. Distractions by a poor working environment can be taken out of the equation by identifying how we arrived at our current situation.

Linked in under Christopher J Heil

Certified Ergonomics Assessment Specialist

Licensed Architect in Colorado, Texas and Utah