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Implementing a High-Performance HMI Philosophy and Culture

Little thought has been given to human factors in the control room layout, the operator stations and even less to the user interface design. Operators may be oriented to “normal,” steady-state plant operations, but are ill-prepared to deal with abnormal situations when they arise. This includes scheduled shutdowns and start-ups that today happen at increasingly infrequent intervals. And, all too often, the information operators need to make quick, intelligent decisions does not exist within the operations environment—requiring operators to juggle walkie-talkies, telephones and other system interfaces at the precise moment the process demands their undivided attention.

Is it any wonder that operators’ inability to react correctly and confidently to the unexpected is responsible for an enormous loss of productivity, money, and even life and limb across industry? Indeed, research indicates that nearly 80% of production downtime is preventable. And half of this is due to operator error. The monetary costs of this failure in the petrochemical industry alone are estimated at $20 billion per year.

In addition to avoiding downtime, damage, injury and environmental emissions, the lost “opportunity cost” due to operators functioning at less than peak effectiveness looms large. In an exclusive joint research project by Control and ABB across Control’s global database of process automation professionals, respondents agreed that operators also have the potential to significantly impact quality and economic performance metrics.  A full 86% of respondents indicated that operators’ impact on product quality was significant. Further, 78% indicated that operators could have a significant impact on a plant’s economic performance.

Clearly the need—and potential payoff—for more effective operators is enormous and intuitively understood. But rather than reversing course and simplifying operators’ tasks, industry is only increasing the pressure. Satellite control rooms are giving way to central operations centers as companies struggle to improve financial performance by increasing the utilization of operations resources.   At greenfield processing sites around the world, plants and units that once operated in a standalone fashion—with dedicated control rooms, interim holding tanks and buffer capacity—now are built as integrated, mega-plants with intricate unit dependencies that must be understood, controlled and optimized in real-time. In the end, fewer operators are responsible for more functional areas, more interconnected processes and more sophisticated control strategies.

Further complicating matters, experienced Baby Boomers are retiring in droves, and companies find it harder than ever to recruit and retain qualified individuals willing to devote themselves to a career in “their grandfather’s control room”—without ready access to the information and collaboration tools they need to succeed, and scarcely a nod to modern principles of ergonomic and human / User -centered design principles.

Ian recently presented an HMI paper at the Yokogawa conference where he was a guest speaker.  The synopsis, implementing a high-performance HMI philosophy and culture can have an incredible impact on your bottom line. Operators who are able to catch a problem quickly—before there’s an alarm—and bring it back to normal can keep equipment running much more reliably. “The longer you stay in abnormal, the more it costs you, and the more it impacts the reliability of your equipment and the quality of your product,” Nimmo said.

Click here to read more about Ian’s HMI presentation and what happened when the fire alarm went off before he was finished presenting.