Big and Small: Display Technologies Transform Control Rooms

Whether on a mammoth screen that can provide the information of a dozen displays or a handheld device to take on the go, control room operators require more data at their fingertips.

The job of control room operator is becoming more complex and more critical. Data volumes are growing, in part because automation equipment is running at higher speeds with tighter precision, while often performing more discrete tasks. New technologies are making it easier to add climate control, video security and other functions to control workloads. And the growing importance of those tasks managed in control rooms makes them a mission-critical operation.

To help operators cope with the changing landscape, control rooms are being transformed by a range of technologies that let them collect and understand more information. HMIs are migrating to larger screens as well as expanding to tablets and smartphones that let workers move outside the control room.

Large screens and touch panels are among the technologies being used to enhance industrial efficiency. Source: Honeywell

“The very nature of the control room is changing,” says Mike Torbett, technical consultant at Honeywell Process Solutions. “As customers automate security and building management systems, the control room is the logical place to manage these types of things.”


Handheld liberators

The range of displays that operators are using these days is vast. Some operators will be holding control screens in their hands, while others are viewing considerably larger flat-panel televisions.

Tablets and smartphones are beginning to liberate operators from control stations, letting them move throughout the facility or access files from remote locations. That lets technicians and other support workers who are out of the office get things running again without traveling back to the worksite. The mobile form factor also lets employees see all relevant information while standing in front of a machine rather than in the control room.

From the supplier’s perspective, it’s relatively straightforward to enable this functionality, according to Matt Wells, general manager, automation software, for GE Intelligent Platforms Software. “There are various operating systems—iOS, Android. That’s not a huge deal; it just requires more testing,” he says. “On the hardware side, Apple is a little easier to work with because there are a limited number of platforms, while in Android there are a huge number of screen sizes and shapes. We’re leveraging technologies like HTML5 to make things easier going forward.”

However, it is challenging for facility managers to open their networks o these wireless mobile devices. Most industrial sites have harsh environments, making it difficult to ensure that signal strength is good throughout the facility. Once managers ensure that all areas have wireless coverage, protecting the networks is a major issue. Tapping into wireless connections is far easier than eavesdropping on hardwired links.

Tablets and phones are increasingly being used to monitor industrial equipment. Source: GE

“Using mobile devices to improve efficiency requires mobile transmission technologies like WLAN, as well as strong security mechanisms,” says Nils Buecker, head of Belden’s INET training program. “WLAN provides plenty of security features to make the communication in a plant secure. For remote access, the communication through the Internet needs to be secured. The challenge is to find a solution that is easy to use without changing existing network and firewall settings.”

Though there’s a lot of development in products that support these handheld devices, many companies are watching the early adopters while they plot their strategies. Some companies are buying devices for employees, but many are avoiding hardware costs by setting up bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategies that let employees use devices they already carry (see “Bring Your Keys, Your Coffee Mug and Your Own Device”).

The big picture

While small screens address applications on the floor and in remote locations, large monitors are changing the appearance of many control rooms. Large flat-panel displays reminiscent of the military control centers seen in movies are showing up in more operating centers. Often, they’re used to consolidate views normally seen on separate screens.

“A surprising number of companies are adding large monitors—50-60 inches or even 70-inch 4K monitors—that let them display several views laid out in tiles,” says Cindy Scott, DeltaV product marketing manager at Emerson Process Management. “They have a lot of pixels so you can display more screens that remain easy to read. Providing this information lets people collaborate more. Maintenance people can see the same information seen by operators.”

Those 4,000-pixel ultra high-definition (UHD) monitors are rapidly falling in price, making them more attractive in industrial environments. The digital displays, which have twice the pixels as conventional high-definition televisions, make it easy to display several different monitor views on a single screen.

“Flat-panel displays have moved forward at breakneck speed, going from 1280 x 1024 up to 4K,” says Andrew Stuart, Experion global HMI product manager at Honeywell Process Solutions. “With a 55-inch UHD screen option, customers can have the equivalent of six 19-inch screens. When you gang two of those monitors together, it’s like having a dozen displays.”

In very large industrial facilities, Hollywood’s transition from film to digital distribution may help companies use even larger screens. Now that movie displays are digital, companies can adopt cinematic technologies to create enormous images. Scott noted that Emerson is studying the role that movie projectors could play in large control rooms.


Improved understanding

Regardless of the size of the display, ease of use is a key design factor. Operators are being asked to control far more pieces of equipment, and many of them are complex machines that run at far higher speeds than their predecessors. That means operators must be able to understand and analyze a lot of information.

“The amount of data available today is an order of magnitude different than several years ago,” Scott says. “We’ve moved to graphics, but a human’s visual awareness to see everything and the amount of information people can process hasn’t changed. Going forward, HMIs need to provide better information and keep the operator in the loop so they truly know what’s going on. When something goes off the rails, they need to know what steps to take.”

Many HMIs are being designed to help operators focus in on problems. And when problems occur, they’re providing information that helps operators know what to do to rectify the situation.

“When something goes wrong, operators start looking at where to go from here,” Wells says. “With traditional HMIs, it can take five or six clicks to get to the right place. Operators want to get to the screen in one or two clicks. We let them go right to the piece of equipment they want and show operators what’s directly connected to that equipment. If a pump is going bad, they can see what other equipment it may impact.”

Equipment providers are continually looking at a range of input technologies such as mice, keyboards and touch input. Touch control, however, has had something of a checkered success pattern in industrial applications.

Some vendors like touch only in certain applications. Others found that customers didn’t really care for it. Honeywell was once in the latter camp, but newer systems change the interaction between man and machine to make touch far more attractive and beneficial.

“We’ve brought touch back to our consoles,” Stuart says. “Operators say it works better, especially when they need to do something in a hurry, like when equipment fails and they need to get back online quickly. The problem in the past was that you had to reach out to touch the screen. Now the screens sit on the desktop right in front of the operators.”

A major challenge for these developers is the first word of HMI: human. What works for one operator may not be optimal for another. When the vagaries of users are combined with the huge range of applications for industrial equipment, there’s no silver bullet. Researchers are working to figure out ways to help managers and integrators determine the techniques and technologies that are best suited to their operating environments. Managers must determine how to provide operators with the necessary data without overloading their cognitive capabilities. That typically requires input from different specialists.

“We’re members of the Center for Operator Performance consortium, which does research for improving operator performance,” Scott says. “As people add more monitors, there’s no single answer to how many screens an operator can handle. The consortium is doing research to provide guidelines.”

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