The Human-Automation Intersection

April 25, 2013
A developing trend among a number of automation interface hardware and software suppliers is to focus more on the operator experience. PAS aims to take that idea to the next level by zeroing in on the concept of human reliability.

It may not be a new concept, considering its roots can be found in H.W. Heinrich’s study of industrial safety in the 1930s, but the idea of “Human Reliability” certainly seems to be catching on across industry. Beyond the benefits of increased safety and improving the appeal of industrial work to new and existing employees, Human Reliability is also being lauded for its positive impact on productivity.

A showcase example of industry’s increasing focus on human reliability was the PAS conference in Houston, Texas, this week. PAS, founded in 1993, is a software and services company whose focus, according to Eddie Habibi, the company’s founder and CEO, is on improving human reliability and enhancing safety, compliance and profitability. PAS’s portfolio includes alarm management, operational boundary management, HMIs, control loop optimization, configuration management, automation infrastructure and management of change.

Industry has done a great job of increasing productivity and reducing costs, Habibi says, but the time has come to focus on preventing human error. He sees human reliability as the next area ripe for optimization across industry. Optimization is sorely needed here, according to Habibi, because industry has “essentially created a monster of complex information systems combining ERP, production management and real-time systems.”

One of the main reasons for the existence of these complex systems is that most end users tend to choose best of breed systems designed to achieve specific goals, which results in “multiple different types of systems being installed in plants,” Habibi says.

Habibi believes the level of system complexity operators and engineers have to deal with is the root cause of many human errors. “That’s why we need to focus on the most important aspect of our operations—humans; because human error is to human reliability what a pump failure is to asset reliability,” he says. “Most human errors happen when people think they're doing the right thing. Therefore, the purpose of human reliability is to prevent human error. In that sense, it’s similar to asset reliability, just focused on humans.”

A key concept of human reliability, according to Habibi is “situation awareness.”  Habibi says that situation awareness is essential to preventing errors because it addresses the physical environment (e.g., control room ergonomics, lighting, temperature, comfort, traffic, noise.), organizational culture (e.g., policies and procedures, shift schedules, reporting, work ethic, motivation, training, knowledge and skills) and the human-automation relationship.

There are three levels of the human-automation relationship, Habibi says. Those levels are: direct operator interaction, decision support and automation asset management—all of which are impacted by the Human Reliability concept.

“At the automation asset management level, the control loop is the key to profitability,” Habibi says. “For the operator, the control loop is like a good foot soldier; its job is to deflect disturbances.”

As for direct operator interaction, “we need to recognize that the role of the plant operator has changed,” Habibi says. The operator’s job is not to directly run the plant, but to supervise the automation system. The operator has to make sure the automation system is doing the right things.”

Key to recognizing this change in operator duties and adapting to it means that new technologies will have to be brought inside the plant. “When you talk about doing this, however, all too often operators and engineers will say, ‘Oh, no! Not in the plant,’” says Habibi. Though he understands their safety and security concerns when it comes to new technology adoption in the plant, Habibi insists that “we need to collaborate to further increase productivity and new technology and ways of doing things are necessary for that to take place,” he adds.

Concerning the decision support aspect of the human-automation relationship, Habibi points to a revival of knowledge management technologies. He realizes that knowledge management has a bad reputation in industry following numerous lackluster and costly deployments a decade ago. But technologies on the knowledge management front, as well as those at the production layer, have changed dramatically since then.

“Knowledge management now includes technologies such as Google, Wikipedia and Twitter,” Habibi says. “When I go somewhere new, I look up new restaurants with Google. What’s knowledge management if not that? These technologies and the way in which they function need to be brought into the plant.”

If Habibi’s name sounds familiar, it may be through his co-authorship of “The Alarm Management Handbook” and “The High-Performance HMI Handbook”. The latter has been cited as an instrumental driver in the development of Opto 22’s groov mobile HMI development product.

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