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Trend Watch: Operator HMI Development

BASF recently shared insights into their development of HMI screens that could be an early indicator of an important industry trend.

BASF's Freeport, Texas, plant
BASF's Freeport, Texas, plant

Industry conferences frequently offer a great chance to see new technologies up close along with the opportunity to hear various end users talk about their experience with those technologies. Less frequently, however, do you catch a bit of insight that could harbinger technology applications across industry.

At last week’s PAS Technology Conference in Houston, I heard not one, but two, examples of technology application that I have not previously encountered.

The first piece of insight came during Keith Dicharry’s presentation. Dicharry is the process and automation leader at BASF’s Freeport, Texas, plant. In his presentation he described how BASF is building the “control room of the future at this plant.” He explained that they completed alarm rationalization a year ago and are now in process of implementing the Honeywell Experion overlay portion of the project.

Another part of this “control room of the future” project involves piloting the development and use of high-performance HMIs. A key aspect of this pilot involves having interface screens designed by the engineers and operators who will actually work with the screens. This is what caught my attention most.

I have not heard of a project where, as part of new interface rollout, the operators got to play a significant role in designing the interface they’ll work with. Just to be sure this was not a trend I had somehow missed, I asked several other end users, as well as a few other industry suppliers at the conference, if they had heard of something like this before. They all confirmed that this was news to them too.

“We reviewed the high-performance HMI philosophy, conducted a high performance HMI workshop, and then developed a style guide for operators and engineers,” said Dicharry as he described how BASF came about taking this new HMI development step. “This was all part of additional training we’re doing with operators to help them grasp the concepts and capabilities to better design HMI graphics.”

Explaining the process a bit further, Dicharry said that, historically, operators haven’t been aware of everything that the DCS (distributed control system) could do. They only know what they’ve been taught about it. “So now we’re teaching them many different ways to look at the data and asking them how to best design their HMI based on what makes the most sense to them.”

Dicharry notes that more review of “before and after graphics,” illustrating the difference between BASF’s former multi-color HMIs and the newer, less colorful high-performance HMIs is needed to help operators “capture the essence of the scope of change we’ve initiated with this project.”

One of the biggest findings of this project to date, according to Dicharry, is that “when you get an operator to build his own interface, you don't have to train him on it.”

Other interesting discoveries include learning that operators happen to like some display aspects that some had thought they wouldn’t prefer. For example, Dicharry says that he doesn't like radar plots and figured most operators didn't either; but it turns out the operators love them and use them quite a bit in their HMIs.

Though the operators did not initially like the new high-performance, less colorful screens of the new HMIs they were designing, they’ve now changed their minds and are happier with the new design because “they’re getting better information and they’re easier to read,” Dicharry said. It’s also enabled them to design screens that “allow them to do a quick scan to see how everything is operating.”

As for that other interesting example I encountered at the PAS conference referenced above … look for my upcoming Trend Watch article on cyber security dashboards.

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