Control Room Design: Let the Sunshine In

Fox Architects, the design firm behind Emerson Process Management’s $5 million Integrated Operations Center in Round Rock, Texas, explains some of the design elements that went into building a state-of-the-art control room.

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We’ve been hearing pretty much lately in manufacturing about 3D—whether referring to simulated environments or the latest additive manufacturing techniques. But what about 4D? Disney may know it as adding smell or touch to a 3D movie experience, but process industries know it as the 4D of day-to-day operations: dull, distant, dirty and dangerous.

Process manufacturing has an abundance of each of those D’s. But how do you get the C-level executives in an oil and gas company, for example, to understand all four of them without actually having to get their hands dirty?

You create an Integrated Operations (iOps) Center to show off the latest and greatest process management and automation products, demonstrating capabilities like the co-location of cross-functional teams in more desirable locales; collaboration tools like videoconferencing; real-time access to process and asset data; and streamlined decision-making workflows.

When Emerson Process Management celebrated the grand opening of its latest innovation center about a year ago in Round Rock, Texas, the $5 million iOps Center stood as the centerpiece of the $70 million global headquarters for Emerson’s automation systems and project services business. The executive briefing center features working models of automated production enterprises to give customers a hands-on experience.

“They get almost a hands-on, in-the-field experience,” says Bob Dunn, partner at Fox Architects. “We give them all the creature comforts in the world, as well as all the dirt and grime that the engineers really want to see solved.”

Fox Architects is the design firm behind the iOps Center in Round Rock, and Dunn worked closely with Emerson to realize what they set out to achieve. Something that was important to Emerson was to be able to not just sell valves or controllers, but sell their thinking process. “They get that sense of how Emerson works, how Emerson thinks,” he says. “It’s really hard to sell how you think. And it’s how they think and how they solve the problems that’s the most critical design of the iOps Center.”

There are several critical elements that factored significantly in the design of the iOps Center. The acoustics and lighting, for example, were important considerations. The central room (pictured here) in Emerson’s iOps Center is encased in glass. That was important for a couple of reasons, but it also made the design a more challenging one.

To do the kind of videoconferencing and connectivity that Emerson wanted to do in its iOps Center, it would be easiest to put everything in a black box, Dunn says. “But we know that people don’t operate well in a black box,” he adds. “You need to keep people awake during a presentation, keep their brains stimulated so they can solve problems.”

Linking the east and west building of Emerson’s Round Rock campus, it was also important to Emerson to give that room high visibility, not only for the customers coming to visit, but for the employees who work there as well. Jim Nyquist, president of Process Systems and Solutions for Emerson Process Management, wanted everyone on campus to see what goes on in that room. “We made that visible to all of the Emerson employees so everyone at Emerson could make a connection to this is why they’re doing what they’re doing at their desks,” Dunn says.

But how to let everyone see in while keeping all the extraneous noises out? To begin with the canted glass isn’t just to make it look cool. “It has to be canted at least 7 degrees to reflect the noise into the ceiling,” Dunn explains.

An acoustical barrier is also created with lamination in between two layers of glass. “It makes the corridor itself a little noisy,” Dunn adds, “because it’s reflecting the noise back. But it’s a transient space, so that was OK. On the inside of the room, it’s reflecting the noise up to the ceiling.”

Control room principles

Achieving the kind of lighting Fox Architects was after is important not only for Emerson’s demonstration room, but actually for any facility trying to achieve optimal settings for a process control situation.

“The biggest mistake that all control rooms make is not bringing in daylight to their user,” Dunn says. Typically, a manufacturer will bury its control room in the center of a building for protection. But it’s still important to let the sunlight in. “Daylight is probably the most important factor for human errors. People cannot stay attentive without daylight.”

That doesn’t mean that process companies cannot use a black box for the control room, Dunn explains. “They can create a path of travel. Put the restroom where you have to travel past glass,” he says. “People need to know if it’s daylight or if it’s dark. They lose sight of the importance of that connection to the nature of working on Earth. You have to have access to sun. You have to have access to views. You can’t just go into a black box, or you’re going to have human error.”

There’s been some debate in industry about the appropriate lighting inside the room, and Dunn has an opinion about that as well. There should be a light dimming system, he says, and each operator should be able to adjust to their own level of lighting preference. “And always provide more than one source of light—not just one canned light or one fluorescent fixture,” he adds. “It should be diffuse light, so it doesn’t look like it’s coming from one source.”

As Fox Architects did with Emerson’s iOps space, the acoustics in a control room are important as well. “You need to make sure the acoustical noise is somewhere between 35 and 45 dB,” Dunn says.

Don’t have the HVAC system in the room starting and stopping, but instead have it blowing continually with an adjustable temperature, Dunn advises. “That’s what people use when they use a white noise system,” he says. Keeping the HVAC system running is the easiest way to get a comfortable temperature and controllable environment, as well as white noise for the operators.

“If you have a lot of people in a command center, like 30-40 people, then you’re going to have to introduce a sound absorbing system. Then you spend the money to interject the frequency that helps deaden noise,” Dunn says. “You want people to be able to make eye contact. But that can be a very disruptive environment because there’s a lot of chatter.”


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