Better Operator Ergonomics Increase Plant KPIs

It is important for process and discrete manufacturers and suppliers alike to focus on tools that improve the interaction between systems and operators, as there will be a significant shortage of operators within the next five to 10 years.

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Even in today’s economy, it is getting harder for manufacturers to recruit new operators. Manufacturers need to retain their current operators and their skills, as well capture the knowledge of their skilled, soon-to-be retirees.

This operator shortage is due largely to the perception that operations is not an attractive career path. By providing operators with a comfortable, stimulating work environment, manufacturers can help to change that perception.

Maximizing operator effectiveness is essential to minimize the risks of accidents, eliminate unscheduled downtime and maximize production quality. The global process industry loses $20 billion, or 5 percent of annual production, due to unscheduled downtime and poor quality. ARC estimates that almost 80 percent of these losses are preventable and 40 percent are primarily the result of operator error. There is also direct money to be made in the control room. ARC expresses this as “ergonometrics,” in which improved ergonomics leads to increased key performance indicator (KPI) and metric results.

Many control rooms do not provide the operator with a good overview of the process, and the ergonomic environment is not always optimized for the operators, leading to fatigue. Human-machine interface (HMI) displays often are not large enough, leading to eye strain. Live video and other external applications are not integrated with the displays, resulting in control rooms with many different types of terminals and interfaces with unsynchronized data.

There has always been a need for a good visualization overview of the process. The ergonomic focus must be on the operator tasks, not on the technology. Large screens must be interactive and close to the operators. The operator area must be secured from outside visitors. All furniture must be ergonomic and adjustable for individual needs. Lighting and noise level must be optimized for the operators. All non-essential computers must be removed from the control room. Break areas, meeting areas and even exercise areas should be integrated in the control room design, when possible.

It is equally important to integrate applications, as synchronized and appropriately contextualized information is necessary for operators to make fast and correct decisions. A single, uniform environment minimizes the need for operator training. In this type of environment, all information can be presented on any screen at any time, including live video, documentation and operator instructions, and maintenance and production data.

Unified presentation

ARC's Collaborative Process Automation Systems (CPAS) vision for achieving operational excellence stresses a single, unified information environment for the operator, as well as the ability to present information in context to the right people at the right time from any point within the system. Operational excellence requires systems that provide operators with a good, common overview of the plant operation, with online KPIs and continuous improvements, as well as operator training and simulation tools.

Context-sensitive navigation should provide operators with quicker access to data, presented in an ergonomic environment based on human factors. Systems should support multiple monitors and large screens designed for both remote and mobile connectivity. Systems should also provide synchronized alarm management, built-in documentation management, tested and verified solutions, asset optimization tools and live video capability.

Increased HMI ergonomics and design can have a positive impact on operational performance, as well-designed HMI screens enable operators to be more effective and make the right decisions more often. Manufacturers should provide operators with the opportunity to participate in the design and implementation of both HMI and control rooms.

Craig Resnick, cresnick@arcweb.com, is Research Director at ARC Advisory Group Inc., Dedham, Mass.

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