Control Room Best Practices Push Comfort, Communication, Collaboration

Transforming gradually over the past decade, today’s process control rooms incorporate new ways to collaborate and communicate enterprise-wide, and protect operators from fatigue and stress.

Aw 21356 Controlroom

Today’s control room is not what it was a decade ago. It has changed so gradually, you might not have noticed, but over time it has transformed into a data center that can measure a facility’s total wellbeing. It has also become a space that considers operators as the highly valued assets they are, providing more ergonomic desks and chairs, more space around operator stations, and other important developments that promote comfort and focus.

Concern about keeping operators alert and clear-headed has led to fatigue management, including setting separate space aside where operators can nap. Fitness rooms attached to control rooms—or even small workout areas inside the control room—have also begun showing up.

A best-practice list for control rooms should include having restrooms in the control room, making the room sufficiently spacious to accommodate shift changes, and using any room shape but a cube, according to Terry Lash, senior process engineer at the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center (NCERC, www.siue.edu/ethanolresearch/) at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Ill.

Beyond changes designed around comfort, today’s control rooms incorporate collaboration stations, improved communications across the enterprise, an increased number of screens per operator, and remote access to control screens through remote HMIs, laptops, tablets and mobile phones/communicators.

Communication transformed
New communications technologies have brought genuine visibility of operations up and down the corporate hierarchy. Steve Elwart, director of systems engineering for Ergon Refining (www.ergon.com) in Vicksburg, Miss., points to the transformation control rooms have seen in their ability to communicate the entire facility’s wellbeing. “It handles sensor-to-boardroom communications,” he says.

As part of this transformation, Ergon has created a two-way data flow that makes operators’ work lives easier, displaying information from a separate plant network on their screens so that they can use the control network to manage plant operations, and use the plant network to check emails, daily orders, laboratory data, etc. Elwart also uses an electronic logbook that allows certain users to find information themselves, even beyond operations into the enterprise.

Everyone should be able to view plant performance from the control room. With that, productivity increases, according to NCERC’s Lash. NCERC provided that virtual visibility into a fermentation unit’s operation by making the control room a more effective communicator. “The control system was a real mess,” Lash says. “The design predated computers using step controllers and relay logic. And there was no data-acquisition system.”

The remedy was built around a Siemens (www.siemens.com) Simitac PCS 7 distributed control system (DCS), partly because pilot plant engineers were already familiar with it. Lash put remote HMIs on control-room touchscreens, enabling operators to make quick control decisions at the point of control. With the DCS’s data-trending, NCERC optimized plant processes by generating historical data and then passing it to an external software package like Microsoft Excel.

The new system changed the room. “Before having the other technology, we were living with one screen per operator station,” Lash says. “Now, with the new technology, we have two operator stations in the control room, with three screens per operator.”

Multiple screens per operator have become commonplace in today’s control room. Though some studies show that operators can’t process more than three screens, Elwart would rather have “a couple too many rather than a couple too few,” he says. “It might be overkill, but when you start looking at ancillary screens and operational screens, there are probably six per operator station.”

Collaboration made easier
New best practices have also shielded operators from other staff members to increase efficiency in the control room. Separate engineering stations appeared at the back of the room, as did separate but attached conference rooms enabling others to see through windows into the control room. That keeps focus in and crowds and distractions out.

A significant shift also occurred with creation of collaboration stations that merged enterprise-wide communications and control room operations, also helping to shield operators from the typical crowd of people breathing down their necks during incidents.

Feedback from industry showed that information sharing was challenging, partly because of multiple standalone technologies, says Chris Morse, Honeywell Process Solutions (www.honeywellprocess.com) product marketing manager in Bracknell, UK. That led to downtime and operators’ stress.

To correct those negatives, Honeywell moved casual observers away from the operators’ consoles to a collaboration screen—typically, in a separate room—where observers could speak with the operator without causing disruption. Besides not interfering with control-room activities, this also provided the ability to share information in a single screen that’s not normally available on the console. “You display all the information available in the organization—maintenance, management, different tools within the organization, etc.,” Morse says.

The collaboration screen is particularly helpful in the event of an incident. The operators can continue to manage the incident from their stations while others look at the problem via the collaboration screen. As they work through the problem, they communicate with the operator.

“The idea is to improve collaboration, so a group of people can get together around the screen, discuss the problem and come up with the solution quickly,” Morse explains. The data they’ll use already sits in silos. And if they want to interact with someone outside the control room, they can via Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) Lync’s instant messaging, conferencing and enterprise voice potentials. A big part of the collaboration station’s operation is also closed-circuit TV.

Besides local collaboration, anyone, anywhere, can connect to the collaboration station. Also, plant staff can embed a dashboard on the screen to retrieve production rates and performance, as well as other desired information. 

That anyone-anywhere collaboration fit well with plans for King’s Hawaiian (www.kingshawaiian.com), a Torrance, Calif.-based baker of Hawaiian sweet round bread, which was building a second plant 3,500 miles away in Georgia. “We wanted to be sure we could look remotely from California in on the process, to make sure production meets our customers’ expectations,” recalls Mike Williams, company director of engineering. But the company hadn’t done a lot of formal reporting or evaluation—and whatever data they did capture was typically recorded via old pencil-and-ledger technology.

Other best practices
NCERC’s Lash lists as key among best practices: Don’t scrimp on expenditures for equipment. Also, keep safety systems in the control room; and use video for visibility of security in critical facility areas, and for deliveries and critical operations.

The best practice that trumps all, according to Ergon’s Elwart, is to be consistent with today’s technologies. “Be aware of the generational gap between today’s new operators and the designers,” he says. “Design for today’s workers, not 20-30 years ago, when the designers were the same age.”

As more operators bring mobile communicators into the control room, some companies try to inhibit their use, remarks Elwart, a former board member for the Emerson Global Users Exchange (www2.emersonprocess.com) “But we have seen time and time again, you cannot stop technology, you can only manage it.”

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