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Home > Posts > Improving Operational Performance by Improving the Operator Experience
July 02

Improving Operational Performance by Improving the Operator Experience

Recently, Per Lundmark, Business Manager of Operator Effectiveness & Human Factors for ABB and Pierre Scharing, Managing Director of CGM, a Swedish company focused on control room design and ergonomic furniture, visited ARC here in Dedham, Massachusetts. The two companies have formed an alliance to deliver advanced operator workstations and control room design services for the process industries. The purpose of this visit was to discuss operational issues, the value proposition associated with their solutions, and the details of their approaches.

The Challenge for Process Industry Operators
The role of an operator can be characterized by long periods of potentially mind-numbing inactivity, punctuated with short bursts of highly stressful action. It is critical for an operator to sustain a high level of alertness and understanding of the progress through the production cycle during the slow times and, at the same time, have real-time access to critical information in context to be able to make correct decisions immediately when circumstances dictate. This is the challenge operators face in the process industries and the reason why operational errors are the highest single cause for unscheduled slowdowns and shutdowns.

The Extended Operator Workplace Gets Important New Capabilities
ABB introduced the company's System 800xA Extended Operator Workplace (EOW) back in 2004 with the objective of providing a superior operator experience. More recently, the company introduced EOW-x, a series of enhancements designed (in collaboration with CGM), to improve operator comfort and effectiveness further by focusing on the operator and the dynamic situation in the control room at any given time. To provide a demonstration center for the new technology, ABB and CGM created the "Future Operations Center" in Boras, Sweden, where end customers can see, hear, and feel for themselves how this innovative technology can affect the operator environment.

ABB Extended Operator Workplace EOW-x

ABB's Extended Operator Workplace EOW-x is designed to provide extended graphics in a personalized HMI design environment, with extensive view handling and navigation features, with support for multiple monitors and large screens. EOW incorporates the workplace into an integrated control room layout and ergonomic design, which includes:

  • Fully adjustable furniture with selectable materials and colors
  • Optimized lighting and noise conditions
  • Customized visualization solutions for different requirements
  • Personalized "close large overview" displays for interactive work
  • High-quality speaker systems plus built-in camera for video communications


Data and system integration consists of live video aspects on process objects, video group displays, embedded video in process displays, video history with recording to hard disk, snapshot of images, and camera faceplate with camera control directly from the operator screen. Additional integrated functionality includes telecommunication applications such as voice communication and integrated public address systems with context- sensitive access. Critical alarms are automatically generated for the operator with a selection of alternative message and languages, access to general messages from a list and open entry of new messages, and on-line documentation and maintenance data.

ARC uses the term, "ergonometrics" to describe an environment that facilitates high human performance via appropriate measurements. In this case, that of the process operator.

The ABB-CGM alliance uses the philosophies and processes associated with user-centered design (UCD) as a basis for its deliverables, which is consistent with the principles of ergonometrics. The UCD approach grounds the process in information about the people who use the product. UCD processes focus on the users through the planning, design, and development of a product. The alliance also uses crisis intervention and operability (CRIOP) analysis to validate and verify human factor-related assumptions in the offering.

Creature Comforts Help Boost Operator Effectiveness

The EOW-x approach aims to minimize operators' fatigue and distractions to help improve their effectiveness in the control room. The control console (which is available in several different configurations) is motorized and fully adjustable for height, enabling operators to stand or sit comfortably as desired.

The motorized monitors can also be adjusted electrically on multiple planes to accommodate individual operator's preferred viewing angles. In alarm situations, the control system can automatically adjust consoles, monitors, ambient temperature, airflow, lighting, and room coloring in an appropriate manner to enable the operator to respond immediately, without have to fiddle around with adjustments before they can get down to the critical task at hand.

The console can be equipped with vents that will provide each operator the opportunity to regulate air temperature and flow in his/her position. And since unwanted sounds can be distracting, the control room design provides noise cancellation at each position. A sound shower can also be provided in that position to deliver sounds that are pleasant to the particular operator inside the envelope. Each position can also memorize and automatically reconfigure itself for individual operators.

Large-Screen Displays that Work for the Operator

Automation presentation has gone through several phases of evolution. First, sensors transmitted and displayed process measurements, but without context. Next, indicators and recorders were placed on a large board, which provided the needed context. However, these consumed an enormous area and large systems, often making them impractical. CRT monitors then came onto the scene. These have served well for a single operator, working from a single position, managing a predetermined portion of the plant.

Recently, another dimension has emerged: large, flat-screen LCD monitors that can provide an overview of the entire unit or plant for the operator on a single panel, display a variety of different information types, or be used to enable multiple disciplines within the plant (such as operations, process operations, and maintenance) to collaborate during critical periods. While some large control rooms (mostly in refineries, petrochemical plants, or power plants) already have wall-size monitor arrays, these often are intended more for show, than for individual operators to use to solve problems. However, according to ABB, with EOW-x, the operator "owns" the large screen monitors, which can provide him or her with a "close large overview" (vs. a long distance overview) of the processes being monitored.

Eliminating "Keyboard Clutter"
Most plant controls rooms today still have different computers to support different functions and applications. This typically results in many different monitors and keyboards scattered across an operator's console; a situation that does not lend itself to good decision-making or rapid operator response, when this is most critical. The ABB approach, however, brings everything together various applications (process displays, trends, alarm screens, live video, telecommunications, etc. within a common HMI, and eliminates the need for multiple computers and keyboards. Instead, the operator can interact with all functions and applications using a single keyboard, minimizing both clutter and potential confusion. While this approach is not unique to ABB, it appears to be well executed here.

Google-Enabled Design Tool Help Eliminate Surprises
To help clients envision clearly how their future control rooms will look and work at a relatively early stage in the project (when it's much more practical to make adjustments), ABB and CGM make use of a Google
SketchUp 3D virtualization tool. According to ABB, this allows the client's project team to avoid the most common mistakes, like focusing more on visitors than on the operators and "doing it the way it has always been done." This can result in a smarter layout that saves valuable space, yet enables operators to work better.

Enabling Technology for Operations Centers of the Future
In some situations, the EOW-x concept will extend beyond a single plant or unit and encompass a broader scope of information across several plants constituting a division or region. Here, rather than just process control and manufacturing operations management, the operators' functions will typically involve material movements, dispatching, and performance benchmarking. The alliance is working closely with the University at Chalmers in Sweden to research effectiveness in this area, particularly research into how to avoid operator fatigue and increase alertness.


ARC loosely defines "operational excellence" as, "more people making more correct decisions." In a process plant, the operator plays a pivotal role in performance. This makes it imperative to create a superior environment for the operator, one in which he or she is not fatigued, continues to be engaged, and is prepared to make the correct decisions at the correct times, enabling operators to contribute significantly to higher business performance.


All Signed-in clients can view the complete report in pdf format at Improving Operational Performance by Improving the Operator Experience

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