Industrial manufacturers have long known that operators can be quickly overwhelmed when overloaded with data at the console. Critical solutions such as alarm management and intuitive interfaces have been developed and redeveloped over the years to combat this threat to safety and productivity.
But what if the opposite was also true? What if operators who don’t have enough tasks to keep them focused on the console become distracted, making them less efficient in response to process incidents?
These concerns are the foundation of a research study spearheaded by the Center for Operator Performance. The study is attempting to understand operator workload to determine at what point are too few, or too many control actions detrimental to operator performance. The Center for Operator Performance, created in 2007, is a consortium of process control operating companies and vendors, addressing human capabilities and limitations with research, collaboration, and human factors engineering.
Research will be led by Dr. James Henry at Lamar University—a college with a strong technical program located in the heart of North America’s energy industry—and will focus on the impacts of operator workload. This research is supported by technology donations by Emerson. Mart Berutti and Mark Nixon of Emerson worked with Dr. Henry to identify and provide technologies that support the COP’s goals for the project.
I recently had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Henry to learn more about the project and his expectations.
Q: What is the process you will use to test your theories?
A: We’re going to be utilizing the DeltaV™ distributed control system and use Mimic™ simulation software to drive events and scenarios behind the scenes. We’ll basically force the operators to make changes, from operational optimization like increasing throughput to also handling upsets.
The idea is, we’re going to put students, as our model users, through the wringer, from boredom to increasing their loads to determine if we can create an inverse “U” shape. This would demonstrate when the amount of workload creates poor response if they have nothing to do and something comes up, to an optimized workload in the middle, and then eventually get to the other side of that curve where they are just so overwhelmed they can’t get the work done.
Q: How are you setting up your study to really simulate the real world, both to improve the value of your results and to improve the student experience?
A: We wanted to create a true process. We were in the process of developing what that would look like when Emerson offered a debutanizer simulation that has Mimic installed behind the scenes so we could create scenarios of upsets. This is going to be a fully-functional, first principles debutanizer simulation. This is similar to what students will see in industry if they’re at a refinery.
Q: How do modern technologies improve your ability to perform this research?
A: Prior to being at Lamar, I was with a company called ProSys*. I have a bit of a different perspective, coming at this from the DCS side as opposed to the process side. This research can be significantly simplified utilizing what we know about DCS processes. We can test in a way you can’t do at a facility. They can’t just cause a process upset to see what happens.
Q: What impact do you anticipate the results of this research having on industrial manufacturing?
A: I think the biggest piece we see is coming up with benchmarks that are of use to the process control industry. We want to identify—for instance in the operator limits aspect—metrics that they can pull from their historian data, run a quick analysis and identify if are operators running at suboptimal levels or right on the edge of where they could be about to fail. That could allow industry to then make decisions about how they redistribute some of their units among consoles.
Q: How does the grant from the COP and Emerson help enable this project?
A: Since the COP is a group of operating companies this research grant has the potential to have a wide impact. From my perspective, I cannot begin to tell you how incredible it is, not just from a cost perspective, but from a time perspective. To have fully-functioning DCS environments ready—including a fully-functioning simulator—is labor I don’t have to put on myself or a grad student to try to figure out. To build something at a first principles level like that would take us months to a year.
Michael Moody, process control expert and automation and SIS manager for BASF also commented on the COP’s involvement in the project
“I’m excited to be a part of the Center for Operator Performance and I have enjoyed working with Dr. Henry on this project. I look forward to the results of this project as it directly addresses questions around operator workload quantitatively instead of just qualitatively. The industry has made great strides over the past decade with respect to alarm management by establishing recommended practices and defining threshold targets for alarm system performance. Since an operator’s workload is not determined by number of alarms alone, but also on the number of “clicks” or “moves” required to complete a task, establishing thresholds for operator control actions will allow us to identify scenarios where there is a high potential for overload and implement appropriate measures.”
Dr. Henry expects to publish results from the study in 2022. The Center for Operator Performance expects to utilize this research towards follow-on research projects, such as to transform student workload performance benchmarks into benchmarks applicable to operating companies. Emerson, as a long-standing member of the COP, is proud to help support Lamar University in the effort to improve operator safety, efficiency, and preparedness.
To learn more about Dr. Henry’s research grant and work with the COP, you can read the announcement on the Lamar University website. You can learn more about the Center for Operator Performance at the organization’s website. I’d also be interested to hear your thoughts on the impact of operator workload on control. Feel free to share your comment below.
*Editor’s Note: Emerson acquired ProSys in January 2018.