How Batch Visualization Improves Situational Awareness

By Janice Abel


With today’s information overload in both our personal and professional lives, it’s more important than ever to give Batch Visualizationserious thought to how information is presented.  This is particularly true for operators in industrial process plants for whom overly complex visualization can be distracting, confusing, and counter-productive.  On the other hand, streamlining information visualization to make important information stand out when needed can increase productivity and go a long way toward helping reduce costly and potentially dangerous operator errors by reducing distractions.   What process control operators really need is the right information at the right time and in the right context to provide the appropriate situational awareness to be able to respond quickly and appropriately as needed and anticipate future issues.

As ARC Advisory Group learned in a briefing with Honeywell, that company has made a major effort to incorporate the latest thinking in human factors engineering into its new Experion Batch visualization offering. 

The visualization solution features:

  • Patent-pending, workflow-based technology designed to enable operators to visualize the current recipe state, control the sequence, and plan for upcoming events
  • Guided troubleshooting to speed problem resolution
  • Visual analytics to reduce operator stress
  • Situational awareness that improves operator responsiveness and reduces human errors

The Challenge

Batch processes are complex, particularly during the frequent startups and shutdowns.  Operators need to be able to quickly identify and respond to abnormal operation.  This requires focused concentration, particularly during start up and shut down when there may be alerts, alarms, manual steps and other things that the operator needs to attend to quickly. The distractions that operators often encounter can potentially inhibit their ability to respond to the right events fast enough.

Control room operators often work for long hours handling extremely demanding tasks.  In addition to running a batch, operators spend lots of time doing other tasks like taking samples, logging information, monitoring equipment, and other tasks that can distract them.   But the operators still need to be alert to handle alarms indicating potential process issues.  And during periods of high activity the operator needs to able to interpret the situation (e.g., the importance of alarms or anything else that might need his or her attention) and respond immediately.  

Historically, process plant designs and displays revolved around the chemistry, instrumentation, and controls rather than the operator’s ability to respond.  This can hamper his/her ability to interpret and respond to what is going on.  Many operator display screens were designed based on the initial engineering flow diagrams. Often, these displays were very busy, with lots of superfluous colors that hampered, rather than assisted the operator.  This was particularly true in emergency situations.  Traditional designs did not account well for human capabilities and their ability to respond to various situations - particularly in emergencies.

An additional complication is that today’s operator is doing more than the previous generation.  This includes troubleshooting processes, identifying new methods to reduce production costs, and trying to find more efficient ways to maintain the complex sequencing required for batch production.

Human Factors Engineering and Design

Even the best and most experienced operators can sometimes make mistakes.  Human factors engineering has shown that the busier the screen, the more difficult it may be for the operator to focus and make the right decision at the right time.   Too many alarms, messages, or colors can distract operators from those that are truly meaningful and require attention.   On the other hand, good design can reduce distractions, improve reaction times, and enable operators to focus on important issues to minimize or even prevent human errors.  Operator displays need to be designed with human factors and human capabilities in mind.  Older displays or screen designs often had either too much, or not enough information, making it difficult for the operator to respond correctly. 

Having clear, accurate, consistent displays, instructions, and procedures   can reduce human error, increase productivity, and enhance safety.  Human factors engineering design is particularly important for modern batch applications due to the volume and variety of data and information available to today’s operators.

Intelligent Batch Visualization for Rapid Response

As ARC learned, Honeywell’s Experion Batch solution incorporates new, patent-pending visualization technology that takes human factors engineering into account.

While conducting research into the needs for this new-generation batch automation system, Honeywell conducted hundreds of interviews with operators and observed how they actually do things.

Batch Visualization

They found that in batch operations, while performing some procedure that requires his or her attention (such as adding an ingredient or inputting data), operators could be distracted by something else that requires their immediate attention after which they must take the time to reorient themselves to continue the procedure.  This can lead to inefficiencies.  Based on this research, Honeywell further simplified the operator interface displays for its next-generation batch automation system to enable operators to focus on what’s important. 

Simple and Intuitive Time-based Displays

The new human interface appears to be well thought out with simplicity of design. The intuitive grayscale displays are intended to improve operator responsiveness. According to the company, patent-pending visualization technology automatically constructs look-ahead views, providing operators with insights to upcoming events or potential delays and the flexibility to conduct more tasks concurrently. Experion Batch can present the current and future state of operations in a natural intuitive manner, leveraging what Honeywell refers to as “visual analytics.”  

In the unit timeline view shown, batch operators can clearly see all process steps on one screen.  This view allows operators to view the batch in terms of the past, present, and future unit procedures, operations, and phases, as well as manual interactions in context, all on the same timeline.  All current and future batch instructions can be seen in the dedicated message center.  Information can be filtered including Parameters, unit information, or other information can be filtered based on what is happening now and what will happen.  Users can respond in real time and rely on automatic delay notifications to enable them to respond in real time. 

Batch Visualization

The “Procedure Explorer” function allows users to drill down and easily determine and resolve the root cause of an issue.  Operators can view all the units in their scope at one time. Units can be filtered by messages, delays and alarms and the projected future path of selected batch displays.

Planning and Workflow

The timeline view integrates many automated features for operations planning.  These include predictive messages and instructive prompts.  The displays can also lead the operator through what batches are planned and what is scheduled.  Key indicators show if there are delays in the product with the ability to drill down for details using what Honeywell calls a “NOW” card.  Using this display, operators can determine if and why there are delays using built-in prompts that automatically guide them through the issues.  Additional features like guided troubleshooting help them to keep the batch processing. 

Situational Awareness – More than Just Visualization

Views into what is currently going on and what is about to happen provide operators with improved situational awareness. The new generation Experion Batch provides situational awareness through patent-pending technology that enables operators to anticipate, plan, and maintain unit updates and speed. 

Batch Visualization

Procedure Explorer helps to eliminate distractions and simplify operations, so the operator does what he or she is supposed to at the right time.  The operator can use the display to see where the problem is and toggle through problem areas.

Real-time Golden Batch Comparisons

The software can compare current batches with golden or best batches in real time to help ensure product quality, batch-to-batch consistency, and operational efficiency. This can help companies bridge operator skill gaps, enabling all operators to duplicate the performance of the best operators every time.  

Eliminating the Need for Extensive Workforce Experience

Many experienced operators either have retired over the past couple of years or will be doing so very soon.  A lot of knowledge is walking out the door.  The new generation of workers are often skilled at digital technology, but don’t have the experience of the retiring operators or the skills to sort out and resolve problems quickly.  This is where technology can help.  Honeywell’s workflow-focused visualization addresses the new generation worker by reducing the need for extensive operator experience at a time when the skills gap continues to increase.


Even with today’s market hype around augmented and virtual reality, a simple, crisp, well-designed screen can provide immense benefits – particularly if it is designed to eliminate distractions and focus the operator’s attention so that he or she understands the complete situation.

ARC believes that situational awareness influences human behavior. As articulated in ISA 101 and other display standards, clear crisp grayscale designs can help focus the operator’s attention and prevent operator mistakes that could result in reduced yields, lost batches, off-spec product, and compromised safety.  Traditional busy and colorful screens can have a negative influence on operator attention and behavior. 

With Experion Batch, Honeywell has provided some well-thought-out features that optimize key human factors from the visualization to their sequential procedural displays.  Clear well-designed displays can lead to a more productive and safer environment.   Sometimes simpler is better.  The quicker you understand the entire situation, the better the results.


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Keywords: Visualization, Human Factors Engineering, Honeywell, Experion Batch, ARC Advisory Group.


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