Operators Get More Help

Efforts aim to provide insights and tools to boost performance.

By Seán Ottewell, editor at large

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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.’”

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