How to enhance control room operator capacities: human factors and ergonomics

Control room operator’s actions have a direct impact on uptime, production output, quality, and safety of industrial plants. However, operators are often hindered by a lack of attention to human factors to stay on top of the production process and interact with the control system.

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Incorrectly planned environments intended for 24x7 use often are depressing, unwelcoming and uncomfortable at best—and at worst create fatigue and boredom. 

Designing a control room with the human factors in focus can convert potentially dangerous fatigue and distraction into proactive alertness that extracts the very best from every individual – in both routine operations and critical situations.

With the new technologies enabling the Internet of Things, Services and People, future operators will  have a more predictive and supporting role, bringing big cost savings with their decisions and inputs.

“The need for an operator to work efficiently is not confined to crisis situations; it is a priority in day-to-day work as well”

Use furniture specially designed for control room operators

Today’s operators need to keep an eye on several things at once ranging from process data to surveillance cameras, even weather forecasts. Things can get complicated because different information is usually displayed on separate systems via dedicated monitors, keyboards and procedures. To get a complete view of these separate systems, the operator has to move between different displays. This shouldn’t be necessary. Control room desks can become an active part of the process and apply the latest Human factors standards to reduce fatigue, create alertness and improve the operator’s health and well-being.

Industrial automation environments, which are entering a new phase, facilitated by smart plants, intelligent machines and networked processes, pose very specific requirements to the alertness in daily work. A fixed sitting working position is not healthy for operators. Working in shifts changes the natural biological clock in operator's body. Besides, each operator is different, and it is important to have a very flexible platform, which is future proof and attractive for the young people.

The following advanced solutions show how special control room furniture can assist operators in handling the increasingly complicated operating challenges in these 24 hour, 365 day environments.
Industrial automation environments, which are entering a new phase, facilitated by smart plants, intelligent machines and networked processes, pose very specific requirements to the alertness in daily work
Create an efficient information overview

Usually operators do not take full advantage of the large screen monitor. It is seen as a benefit for control room visitors, while the operator performs most tasks on the small personal monitors. For the first time, ABB allows operator to interact with the overview information on the large screen.

ABB control room workstation comes with a rear base unit that holds up to three large industrial 24/7 LCD panels and the control desk, where the operator works, that has space for up to six desk monitors. This set of monitors and panels can display information and images from multiple simultaneous sources including control systems, data historians, document management, diagnostics, CCTV, and other inputs. Each display uses the same aspect ratio (16:9) and the same resolution. Information windows can be changed between all displays according to operator preferences.

Control all functions from one and the same keyboard

When a process event suddenly requires an operator’s undivided attention, it’s vital to get immediate access to important information about what’s happening. This can be overwhelming in a room full of systems with multiple monitors each with different keybord.

ABB has created a working environment where operators don’t need to scramble between keyboards simply to deal with different systems and tasks. The multifunction keyboard can interact between monitors, automatically moving the mouse function with it.

The system is developed for a single operator working alone in routine situations, and when support is needed in critical situations, additional keyboards and mice can be added.

Personalize workspaces to individual users and situations

It’s a good idea to change the position of the monitors and desks during a shift to provide variety for operators and make them more alert. The large screens can not only adjust in height, they can also be moved in depth on some models. The desk monitors can be moved in the same directions and also be positioned at different angles. Everything can be customized via a user-friendly touch panel. With the preset option each operator can save up to 10 positions to be changed throughout the day.

Dimmable LED lighting system has both upward and downward lighting and gives the operator great lighting conditions in every situation. Color temperature is adjustable from warm to cold creating the perfect meaningful non-flickering light for each individual operator and situation - always centered above the desk area without creating reflection to the high frequency LED screens.

Improve collaboration by optimal sound control and integrated video

Telecom and PA systems are an integral part of modern control rooms. But sound is usually broadcast all over, sometimes loud and disturbing or too low to be heard correctly, and sometimes ignored by the operator under stress. Instead of the usual set up, ABB workstations employ sound showers which direct the sound in discrete ways. A special audio and lighting box is located directly above the operator’s work station. This adds to operator alertness and knowledge in both routine and stressful emergency situations. The directed sound stays in the area of the workstation and does not disturb other operators at other stations which may have their own critical tasks to perform. For more general audio information, such as announcements or alarms, there’s a loud speaker system included.

The platform also has a high-resolution camera for visual communication. This ”face to face” interaction can be performed while controlling the process and is very valuable giving the opportunity to talk to subject matter experts while handling abnormal situations.

Improve the awareness of a healthy working environment

Seventh Motion Variability™ feature of ABB control room workstation allows not only to adapt the ergonomics for each operator to a unique and comfortable environment, it can also be used for automatic micro-adjustments to prevent fatigue.

ABB works closely with universities and partners around operator environment improvements and its effects. To facilitate this evolution ABB is creating the Operator Activity Cloud (OAC). Functionality will be developed in conjunction with our research areas and the purpose of the OAC is to put the operator in focus and enhance human performance and wellbeing. The OAC will also have the possibility to monitor the operators’ environment and warn the operator if the light, sound or air quality exceeds or falls below recommended values. By offering services that focus on each individual operator and their preferences with alternate working positions; we can also improve the awareness of a healthy working environment and tailor the functionality for the operators.

With the ABB Extended Operator Workplace platform you will also be able to save up to 30% of control room area compared to a traditional video wall layout.

Enable operators be part of control room layout process

The control room is the most important room in your facility – it‘s where daily decision-making affects corporate goals and return on plant assets. Integrative, individual and ergonomic control room design enables the operator to become part of the process.

The larger control room layout should include a dedicated operations space that is free from distractions. A separate area for visitors should be provided so that non‐essential personnel are kept out of the control area. A dedicated collaboration space should be provided for meetings and group troubleshooting, with A/V tied to control center visualization. Further, a relaxation area should be provided to help operators not actively engaged in operational duties to recharge without distracting on‐duty personnel.

ABB platform gives you unique possibilities for your control room layout. In order to simplify the planning and design work we have uploaded all our standard products to the internet platform, 3D Warehouse. In combination with the design program SketchUp, this becomes a powerful tool to use in all layout and design work from the smallest to the largest control room. There is also a CGM Ergo plugin for SketchUp which allows to bring mannequins into a 3D-environment to help with sight-angle studies,  human factors analysis and compliance with standard guidelines like ISO 11064 and EEMUA 201.

Anticipate future needs

CGM, a member of ABB Group, has vast knowledge and competence in collaborative control room design. Involving us early in a greenfield or modernization project saves considerable time for the whole project. Operator working environment can be planned and furnished as a complete solution, avoiding many of the difficulties associated with a new control room.  Our Cable duct towers integrated in the design are easier to handle, avoid the need for a raised floor and thus shorten the project time with lower costs and increased flexibility in hot change-overs.

With our experience from multiple industries and countries we also offer pre-study packages with fixed pricing.The conceptual design work in pre-studies results in an interactive 3D environment that can easily be exported to many types of virtual walk-around environment, such as the Ocolus Rift platform. We can also transform 3D files into static holograms that are showcasing the decided control room layout for the detailed design phase.

We have worldwide on-site assembly possibilities and international service and repair on all our products. Education of the ergonomic system and assistance with personal settings can be performed.

There has to be a common understanding how the future control room shall work otherwise the design often will be based on the needs of today and it will not be flexible and future proof to also fit the next generation of operators.

Design your very own control room layout

Control room pre-study packages

Optimize the number of control room locations

Satellite control rooms are giving way to central operations centers as companies struggle to improve financial performance by increasing the utilization of operations resources. And at greenfield processing sites around the world, plants and units that once operated in a standalone fashion—with dedicated control rooms, interim holding tanks and buffer capacity—now are built as integrated, mega‐ plants with intricate unit dependencies that must be understood, controlled and optimized in real‐time. In the end, fewer operators are responsible for more functional areas, more interconnected processes and more sophisticated control strategies.  Several facilities may share one control room or it may be hard to find qualified workers willing to work at remote facilities resulting in operations being controlled and monitored from central office locations. This is often the case with offshore oil platforms using onshore control rooms.

ABB is demonstrating that more can be done to streamline control room work. There is a clear trend towards fewer operators with greater responsibility so it is essential to ensure that their work is made as easy as possible. 

With this cost efficient and unique way of designing a modern control room, it will become not only the heart of your operation, but also the brain. In addition to better decision‐making by operators, attention to human factors in the control room will help attract and retain young people, reduce turn‐over and even reduce workplace health issues.

What else can you do to enhance control room operator capacities?

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