Operators Get More Help

Efforts aim to provide insights and tools to boost performance.

By Seán Ottewell, editor at large

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Operators probably won’t be surprised that the results of a CP survey reported in the September 2008 issue identified lack of ongoing training, number of alarms, and control system graphical interface as the three factors most likely to impede their performance (http://survey.atomz.com/st100029dd/?st_s=49&st_tpl=6&st_d=display). What might surprise operators, however, is the amount of work being done to tackle these issues.

“These are very relevant topics and undoubtedly of interest to Dow, along with the rest of industry,” says Jerry Gipson, director of the Engineering Solutions Technology Center of the Dow Chemical Co., Midland, Mich.
“What we want to accomplish is safe, secure production and operation, and our operators are a critical part of achieving this. But the role of the operator and the issues they face continue to evolve rapidly,” he adds.
For training, this means making sure that operators’ knowledge is captured in the company’s technology, process design, work processes and management systems.

“The challenges here are to decide what knowledge needs to be established and maintained, and how to define and promote best practices. It’s also critical to tackle the issue of succession from one operator to another,” notes Gipson.

A key tool that Dow relies upon is standardization. “We have a long-term focus on this because it supports efficiency and best practice globally. So we are able to leverage commonality and then add it to specific training,” he explains.

Plant-to-plant standardization also is important in tackling the alarms issue. Here, Dow first focuses on the design of the process automation system and logic. For example, the application of unit-based control principles has significantly cut the number of nuisance alarms. So, if an alarm goes off, it’s usually justified and an operator will know how to deal with it.

“It all comes back to making sure that alarms are designed and working in a sensible way; so we look very hard at plant-to-plant standardization to help with this,” adds Gipson.

It’s a similar story with the control-system user interface, something that the company has been working on for many years. “When you walk into a Dow control room there will always be always be significant plant-to-plant similarity in the information seen, how it is displayed, even down to the colors, shapes, and text used. So there is a consistency in what the operator sees. Again, we are using best practice in our design principles here, too,” he notes.

Dow also is involved in broader initiatives to tackle these three major issues through ISA, Research Triangle Park, N.C. The company actively participates on that professional group’s standards committees, where it tries to drive an industrial consensus around best practices focused on sustainability. It also has a long-standing relationship with the ARC Advisory Group, Dedham, Mass., a firm that surveys best practices. “We regard such community interactions as essential. But at the same time, however, different communities and stakeholder groups have different objectives, so agreeing on what we have in common can be a challenge. I personally spend a considerable amount of time working in this external arena. There are definitely some great examples of things that the chemical and process industries do agree on, first and foremost the need for safe, secure and sustainable operations,” says Gipson.

New initiatives
The understanding that operators face some common problems is spurring more cooperative efforts. For instance, the Center for Operator Performance (COP), Dayton, Ohio, which was formally chartered in May 2007, aims to conduct research into generic issues in human factors and process operator performance (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2008/213.html). Its members include operating companies Chevron, Flint Hills Resources, Marathon Petroleum, NOVA Chemicals and Suncor Energy, vendors ABB, Emerson Process Management and PAS, as well as Wright State University and human-factors consultant Beville Engineering. Alarms and training are two of its main research thrusts.

The COP has just released the preliminary results from a project called “How Many Alarms can an Operator Really Handle?” being carried out at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, La. Here, a pipeline simulator was used to try to understand the overall number of alarms that operators are capable of dealing with and how their responses are affected by display format.

 “Up to now, the number has really been based on a best guess. But, of course, the regulatory bodies look at the number and use it as if it is based on lots of research. So, we are looking at whether this number makes sense,” says David Strobhar, principal human factors engineer at Beville and a founder of the COP.

Fifty students contended with five different alarm actuation rates via two alarm display formats. Response time, acknowledgement time and the accuracy of the response were among the metrics tracked. The students performed about equally for the four lowest rates, and the same with either display format. However, the highest rate prompted a significant (60%) decrease with one display format, but not as much with the other.
This raises important issues concerning information presentation and training, says Stobhar. “For example, if you train people in different alarm-management techniques, will they be able to handle them? If the alarm rate goes above a certain level, you might need two operators on a console — at an increased cost of about $500,000/yr. But could changing displays and better operator training achieve this? So, overall we are beginning to objectively understand operator performance with alarms and how it is influenced by presentation — and helping to identify the best allocation of funds.”

The COP also now is comparing the responses of the students with those of trained operators to see, for example, if the alarm rate problem occurs at the same point. The final results are due to be presented at its spring meeting at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

Another COP initiative is to adapt exercises that the U.S. Army uses to train battlefield commanders for decision-making under stress and apply them to process plants and pipelines — for low-cost drills to improve decision-making and build expertise. A handbook and video on how to develop different scenarios is already available to the organization’s members and one, Flint Hills Resources, Wichita, Kan., is rolling them out to trainers at all its refineries in the first half of 2009.

 “In terms of feedback, those involved in this training exercise have raved at its power and simplicity,” notes Strobhar.

The center also wants to develop a better understanding of what information operators actually use compared with what information they should be using. This would build upon an expertise study it already has carried out. Operators of a crude unit were tested on 13 levels of expertise against operators of a catalytic cracker at the same site. “The operators on the crude unit scored higher, which was a surprise to the company as they felt the best operators were on the cat cracker,” says Stobhar.

Further investigations revealed that the catalytic cracker had been on advanced control for a decade, while the crude unit had not. “Advanced control had degraded the skills of the operators on the cat cracker. They ran it on auto-pilot. So there was a difference in the level of expertise and the challenge is how to get this back. How often should retraining be given, for example? This is the sort of thing that we want to quantify,” he adds.
The COP also wants to study simulators and displays, including use of color and grey backgrounds. “More importantly, the need to understand what data is being used to make decisions has been identified and will likely be one of the next projects. Finally, a survey of simulator research and use revealed problems in the industry’s fixation with fidelity. One of the identified needs was to have a common metric of fidelity to provide a basis for comparison and discussions,” concludes Strobhar.

Established focus
Another organization pursuing the goal of improved operator performance is the Abnormal Situation Management (ASM) Consortium, Phoenix, Ariz. It was established in 1994, when a group of large multinational companies joined with Honeywell to focus on dealing with alarms and related issues, to reduce incidents in the process industries. Today its members include BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Honeywell, KBC, Petronas, Sasol and Shell.

Operator training is at the heart of a number of projects in its 2009 business plan. For example, the consortium has a current research project on low versus high fidelity simulation for operator training. A proposal for 2009 includes more work in simulation and training to study 3D visualization techniques.

 “The consortium is also planning to invest in a test bed to better evaluate research and product development — this will also include Honeywell’s UniSim Operator Simulation suite,” says director Peggy Hewitt.
 “The new business plan also includes work and research around operator console stations and their graphics. Many control rooms are installing video walls or wide screens, but only limited research has been carried out on the effectiveness of them for operators. There really are no comprehensive guidelines specific to control room operations. Anecdotally, it seems that management likes to see a lot of information that isn’t necessarily needed by the operators,” Hewitt adds.

This work will build upon an earlier interface study by the consortium — a controlled comparison of a human-centered operator interface and a traditional distributed control system (DCS) interface. Its results indicated that operators using the human-centered design completed scenarios an average of 7.5 minutes faster (41% improvement over the traditional interface), successfully dealt with failures in 96% of the cases (a 26% improvement), and recognized the presence of the failure before the first process alarm in 48% of the cases (a 38% improvement).

Metrics is another focus in 2009, according to Hewitt: “We want to see more global information on safety metrics and some of our work could be used to generate leading indicators. There is a lot of interest in this now, driven by regulators and especially in light of the BP Texas City enquiry.”

Vendors’ perspective
There’s been a major shift in the process industry over the last three years, says Victor Lough, technical sales consultant, EMEA,  Invensys Process Systems (IPS), Warrington, U.K. Lough, who particularly focuses on operator-driven processes, says this is due to the rise of high-fidelity operator training systems (OTS) and the ability to build them around customers’ processes.

Figure 1. Upfront Value --  Installing simulators
prior to plant startup is paying huge dividends.
Source: Emerson Process Management.

He points to three main benefits for operators when they can practice startups and shutdowns before a project goes live: faster project execution; improved safety; and better identification of process constraints via the OTS. “We have already seen the major advantages that this brings on a number of projects,” he says.

Customers of Emerson Process Management, Austin, Texas, also are finding that installing simulators on-site before a plant is up and running is paying huge business dividends, emphasizes Jim Siemers, its manager of educational services. This is particularly the case with new processes, where errors in configuration can be found and dealt with, he says (Figure 1).

Better hardware certainly is helping make OTS a reality, but Lough also cites two other important drivers. One is the change in operator profile. “In Europe, for example, we have an exodus of experienced operators being replaced by a ‘new shift’ who may not see a major shutdown for three to five years. In the oil and gas growth regions, we have a high percentage of newly qualified operators entering the industry. So a ‘whole team’ training approach is often required.” The second is alarm management. “This is now seen as a key deliverable on a project and high fidelity OTS has identified issues with the original alarm management deployment prior to startup and allowed for a rationalization prior to the system going ‘live.’”

IPS regards this issue so highly that it established an internal consulting group that brings together a core of engineers specializing in alarm management. The group is based at four centers of excellence in the U.K., Dubai, Singapore and North America. “It’s a sign of how much importance we attach to alarm management and are very proud of the group’s achievements,” notes Lough.

The alarm consulting group also is very active in standards groups such as ISA and Britain’s Engineering Equipment and Materials’ Users Association (EEMUA), London.

Lough sees two approaches for retaining operator knowledge, particularly regarding alarm management. The first, and easiest, is to pick the brains of the most-knowledgeable operators and transfer their expertise to a master alarm database (indicating cause, consequence and action needed). This, he says, captures a lot of knowledge and keeps it in the system. The other solution is generic and is coming on to the market now. It starts from the point of view that you want the operator to make the best product possible. “Then you can change the alarm system into an operator support technology by using data mining to find when the best quality product was made. So, you can use this to keep the plant within its best operation boundaries,” he explains.

The latest generation of operators is much more open to the use of new technologies, he believes, adding that this is spurring product launches. For instance, IPS has just introduced the control system on a PDA to a petrochemical customer in Europe. The concept is quite straightforward: it’s very much safer if the operator can keep in direct touch with the control system while out in the field. Wireless holds strong promise, stresses Lough. “We see a lot of opportunities for open-loop applications, too.”

Meanwhile, the ability to simulate customers’ critical processes has led to a boom in training for Emerson. “We certainly spend more time on simulator training now than on building them,” says Jim Siemers, manager of Educational Services.

Another issue driving training is the aging workforce. “Because a lot of mentorship goes on, much of the operators’ knowledge is undocumented. So users are leaning on vendors now to help find creative ways of capturing this in a formal curriculum,” he says. This boom in training also includes much more retraining as customers begin to realize that knowledge erodes quite dramatically over time.

So, hopefully, a followup CP survey on the topic in a couple of years will testify to the results of these efforts.


Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's editor at large. You can e-mail him at sottewell@putman.net.

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