The "George Jetson Syndrome" and the Operator of the Future

Today's operators face tremendous pressure to perform.

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A wave of retirements and layoffs affects the overall experience level of operators. At the same time, many of the new operators coming into the workforce are more educated and comfortable with the world of commercial off-the-shelf information technology. So what challenges will the operator of the future face, and what tools will be available to him or her? At ARC's 2010 Orlando Forum in February, several end-users shared their views and experiences with the session audience. Presenters included representatives from The Dow Chemical Co., the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), and Savannah River Nuclear Solutions.
 
Mike Williams, of Dow Chemical, spoke about state-based process control and how it drives operational excellence through improved operator response. Williams spoke of the "George Jetson syndrome." In the popular, futuristic 1960's animated television series, "The Jetsons," George's computer at work never hesitates to remind him that he, as the operator, is irrelevant and redundant. Laura Sheets and Lance Abbott from Savannah River Nuclear also referred to George Jetson in their presentation. Here, the context was that the operator of the future is not complacent George Jetson, with his feet up on his desk. Instead, he or she must be engaged, alert at all times and able to make critical decisions.

The common theme is that, while the degree of automation will increase, the operator is there to intervene in a quick and effective manner, should it be necessary. The operator also monitors the holistic performance of the plant and ensures sustained operations against the specific design intent and business objectives.
 
Operators experience a lot of mental stress. According to Williams, the operator's ability to act changes rapidly under stressful situations. Under normal workload, the operator applies basic knowledge successfully. At the first sign of a fault condition, the operator acknowledges the event in a clearly defined manner. As the abnormal situation deteriorates, however, interdependent events propagate, with the human responding based on experience and best judgment. As the event escalates, the ability of the human to act successfully rapidly deteriorates.
 
So how do we address this issue? We need a solution that incorporates automated procedures and the manufacturing operating disciplines with which they are associated. The best operational knowledge needs to be institutionalized and needs to include the most appropriate response to abnormal events. This needs to be applied to all modes of operation, from normal running to start-up, shutdown, and transitions, not just steady-state conditions.

Better-trained operators

Stephen E. Zitney, from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Lab, spoke about NETL's use of advanced simulation technology to train the new power plant operators of the future. Next-generation integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plants will incorporate large, highly integrated, and multipurpose systems that require sophisticated operator training. Zitney foresees increased use of immersive 3D simulation integrated with operator training simulators (OTS). As plant personnel will use 3D visors to perform tasks and respond to trends and alarms, the roles of the control room and field operators will also eventually merge.

Clearly, the operators of the future will play a pivotal role in operations decision making. Operations improve when the operator is able to solve complex problems, instead of having to filter through a tidal wave of data to get to useful information. ARC's Benchmarking Consortium is working to define appropriate metrics and benchmark current best practices for operators in process plants. ARC invites additional end-users to participate in these important activities.  For more information, including specific metrics, readers can visit www.arcweb.com/benchmarking.

Larry O'Brien, lobrien@arcweb.com, is Research Director at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass.

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