Over the years, the control room operator's tasks have become increasingly complex. The number of sources and data inputs has grown massively, while regulations, industry standards, and individual companies' operating procedures strictly control how the plethora or operator applications are integrated.
In this paper, we concentrate on some of the underlying technology issues that have a significant impact on operator efficiency. Resolving these issues can boost operator efficiency as well as job satisfaction.
There are five key criteria to consider in creating an ideal control room design, which should include a visualization system that can:
Integrate multiple applications, while respecting security regulations
Offer one keyboard/mouse/audio setup, with no need to switch between workstations
Be a standard system, not needing a lot of integration effort
Not violate the warranty agreements from application vendors
Incorporate ergonomic principles
The sweet spot of system integration
At one end of the spectrum, we find operator workspaces composed of numerous applications, all running on stand-alone systems.
Monitoring and control are conducted via separate operator stations, each with a dedicated screen, mouse and keyboard. Function key and HMI (Human Machine Interface) conventions also vary from application to application. For reporting tasks, operators must gather information from multiple systems − which is time-consuming, slowing down operator response times, and requiring the operator to remember information from several different systems (because drag & drop is not available across these disparate systems).
Sounds like a recipe for disaster? It is ... tried and tested. Psychological studies show that interpretation and retention are reduced during periods of stress, which leads to overload and operator error. Integrated systems, on the other hand, provide many advantages and opportunities. At the positive end of the spectrum, we have control rooms in which all necessary process control and safety information is presented by a single integrated system, allowing information from different sources to be made available to other support applications (such as Information Management Systems, shift logs, production monitoring, etc.), so that reports, key performance indicators and other data can be easily shared. Such a system enables reports to be generated and distributed automatically, relieving the operator of this task. The main drawback of such a solution, however, is the cost, time and effort of implementation.
But there might be a more practical way − the sweet spot − to achieving higher operator efficiency: some level of desktop integration that is more cost- and time-effective than full system integration and that does not risk invalidating application warranties and maintenance agreements. As we'll explain later on, visual integration allows 'blending on glass' and avoids security compliance issues and vendor dependencies.
'Psychological studies show that interpretation and retention are reduced during periods of stress, which leads to overload and operator error.'
Control room layout and impact on efficiency
Lack of some level of integration can have a major impact on the control room's physical design − impacting space requirements, layout and workstation ergonomics. At the negative end of the spectrum, we find control rooms with a lot of separate system hardware components assembled in an ad hoc, haphazard way. The result is a confused layout and cluttered workstations, with no overall structure, requiring operators to move both physically and mentally between systems. When operators must move from one system to another to complete a task, the chance of human error increases, and the movement might cause a delay in noticing an event. This can slow down operator response time and leaves little chance for an early recovery. KVM (keyboard, video and mouse) switches can reduce the number of keyboard and mouse sets, but they require the operator to manually select which system the KVM is connected to. Also, KVM solutions − typically a one-application / one-screen concept − have very limited flexibility with regard to optimizing visualization.
Good system integration presents the opportunity for a much more efficient and ergonomic control room layout. Indeed, we are seeing more compact workstations with displays for both process control and information management, along with Large Screen Displays either on or off workstation. All of these elements are used together to create a more unified workspace. Moreover, less hardware reduces weight, so that adjustable desks with sit/stand options can be used − which result in better posture and the opportunity for movement, improving operator health and reducing staff turnover.
In a unified workstation, information from different systems can be brought together and presented in accordance with ergonomic principles − i.e. key information in the primary field of view, less important information in the secondary field. A single keyboard and mouse are used to access multiple screens or applications, reducing clutter and confusion. A unified workstation also combines audio outputs, freeing up workspace and eliminating the costs of multiple speakers.
In addition to the ergonomic advantages, these unified workstations can contribute to improving operator communication and situational awareness, especially in large control rooms. One important aspect that Human Factors design studies look at is 'adjacencies' − that is, which operator roles are most closely related; which operators communicate most frequently; which operators need a common overview of a portion of the process? A more compact layout enables operators to be grouped more effectively and improves direct communication between them.
As a more integrated workspace also reduces the operator's switching between applications (both physically and mentally), operator frustration and workload are reduced, which can help optimize staffing. Another cost-benefit of more compact workstations is that the size of the control room can be reduced, with figures of up to 35% reduction in floor space being quoted.
'Good system integration presents the opportunity for a much more efficient and ergonomic control room layout.'
Visual integration is the key
System integration also has a significant effect on the HMI − the operator's window into his/her world. Good HMIs are the key to great Situational Awareness. On the other hand, disparate HMIs increase operator workload and the risk of error. Compounding the problem, operators might not always be physically in front of the right application or screen at the right moment. This makes it difficult to gather the right information in a timely manner to diagnose problems. Worse yet, this information may even be obscured by another application window that is irrelevant to the situation.
At the extreme end of the spectrum, where control room design follows standards such as ISO 11064, we find fully integrated HMIs based on a user-centered design process underpinned by an HMI Philosophy and an HMI Style Guide. However, such an approach may not be easy to apply to upgrades, where legacy equipment and systems are involved, or in some industries where many different vendors and different types of applications are involved.
There is good news though. Technology has evolved within the visualization space so that there is an alternative for such extreme levels of HMI integration as mentioned above. Visual integration delivers many of the benefits − but avoids the cost − of multi-application HMI integration. This means that the right information can be presented directly in front of the operator precisely when he needs it. A visually integrated system also allows for the single mouse and keyboard interaction. Plus, visual integration also allows the operator to optimize his environment to his personal needs or the requirements of operations in normal or special event mode. Another benefit of this approach is that it enables operators to save their personalized settings and activate them at any operator workstation at any time. Finally, the flexibility of visual integration does not compromise corporate policies and procedures regarding the IT infrastructure.
'Visual integration delivers many of the benefits − but avoids the cost − of multi-application HMI integration.'
Readers might recognize some of these issues − perhaps you've experienced some of these challenges yourself. Whether you are considering a new-build or a modification of an existing control room, having a clear understanding of your requirements and where you aspire to be should help you address these challenges in a practical and cost-effective way. Arriving at a solution that stays within the budget and timeline is the big challenge.
As an alternative to fully customized and expensive system integration, Barco has designed OpSpace, a system that meets the criteria mentioned above. To learn more about this revolutionary operator workspace solution, click here or visit www.barco.com/opspace.
Mumaw, R, J The effects of stress on nuclear power plant operational decision-making and training approaches to reduce stress effects. NUREG/CR--6127. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, DC (United States)
http://www.cgm.se/?q=intelligent-ergonomics CGM Borås Sweden.
ISO 11064 Ergonomic Design of Control Centers (Parts 1-7)
Mike Benson, National Director of Sales, Industry & Government
Mike Benson is currently National Director of Sales, Industry & Government, bringing a 25-year track record of high-growth curve sales of collaboration and video solutions. Leading the sales effort for the Barco US Operator Experience team, Mike is charged with building an efficient sales operation, based on a successful history of implementing vertical, market-focused account teams. His experience in building funnels in start-up environments is derived from global sales roles at WTS Paradigm, Ramp Holdings, and VBrick, where he had an extended tenure in business development. He holds a BS degree in Business/Managerial Economics from Graceland University.