Reducing Complexity in Process Instrumentation

Emerson's Ingemar Serneby

Electronics technology continues to rapidly advance. For instrumentation and automation, this means that capabilities can continue to be added. But how do automation suppliers keep from adding complexity with added capabilities?

In an article, Advanced Instrumentation Design for the Next Generation of Users, Emerson’s Ingemar Serneby describes how taking a human-centered design approach and testing with users helps combat complexity.

Ingemar opens noting:

…electronic devices, whatever their purpose, must be intuitive and easy to use. If something isn’t plug-and-play and easily configurable via an app, many users won’t consider it. Advanced Instrumentation Design for the Next Generation of UsersHe references advancements in frequency-modulated continuous wave (FMCW) technology used in Rosemount radar level measurement products.

The implementation of FMCW has improved greatly over the decades. Early-generation transmitters were physically huge, heavy and enormously power hungry… Installing and configuring such a unit required inputting more than 100 settings.

The list of applications for technologies such as these level measurement devices can be long:

One radar level transmitter might be purchased for a refinery alkylation unit, while another might be used for a tomato sauce tank in a food processing plant. The circumstances of those users are vastly different, but the same transmitter must work well in both applications.

Over the 40 years this FMCW technology has been available to manufacturers many things have improved. These include much lower power consumption, use with low dielectric media measurement, difficult solids level measurement, and use with abrasive and corrosive media.

Ingemar highlights the reality of the user manual being used a last resort instead of a first resort.

Most users, particularly younger ones, have little patience for devices with long or complex set-up routines. Many technicians open the box and simply start assembling and installing a device based on how they assume it goes together, and can’t be bothered with documentation and manuals.

He describes some user testing performed with a Swedish forest products company.

The objective was to allow them to handle the test units, just like they would in an everyday situation, and watch the interaction. We looked over their shoulders, took pictures and notes, and did our best to get natural reactions. What we found provided further insights into how technicians interact with current product manuals.

Changes were made to the documentation:

We changed the design to a quick-start card and attached it to the transmitter, also using the filler plug. This approach did draw some engagement and a quick read, although it obviously wasn’t able to transmit all the information of interest.

Read the article for other changes inspired by the technicians with whom they worked to simplify configuration and usage and minimize complexity where possible.

You can connect and interact with other level measurement experts in the Level group in the Emerson Exchange 365 community.