Dec 11, 2018

No contest: today’s control room operators are in another league

Tyler McDonald in Control rooms

4 min read

Control rooms in industrial settings of the past were designed with production and safety in mind, without much regard for the operator’s well-being. Today, production and safety are still top of mind, but so are ergonomics and human centered design —especially where the operator is concerned. Managing a continually increasing amount of data, often with fewer resources, requires new tools and a higher skill set for operators.

Todd Brase, an evangelist of operator efficiency with Emerson Automation Solutions, says that in the past, the control room operators’ skill set was based on sustaining production and keeping the plant running safely. “Their day-to-day job included monitoring the process, managing alarms and minimizing downtime. That was the job, and the technology existed to facilitate that.”

What wasn’t part of the conversation, was the technology to make the operator’s job easier and more efficient. Long hours in cluttered control rooms with poor ambient conditions threatened to to reduce the operators’ effectiveness.

Continuously increasing complexity

As industrial processes became more complex, monitoring and control technology evolved, which led to the creation of more advanced tools and the need to know how to use them. The strategy of the control room changed, and the role of the operator expanded.

“Processes, and the tools used to monitor and manage them, are getting more sophisticated,” Brase said. “Advanced process control and process simulation, for example, are becoming more commonplace. Utilization of these technologies requires a different skill set than past generations of operators. And it requires more advanced operator workspaces that give the operations team broader, quicker access to the growing amount of information.”

Enabling the collaboration room

“Integrated operations, or iOps, is about getting the right information to the right people at the right time so they can make faster, more accurate decisions. In this environment, control rooms become collaboration rooms — with real-time data flowing between multiple parties in myriad locations.”

"In this environment, control rooms become collaboration rooms."

This evolution in skills and expectations is also happening in other sectors. A former senior police officer, Chris Dreyfus-Gibson is now Vice Chairman, International Critical Control Rooms Alliance and product manager for control room solutions at Sopra Steria.

He says that in the public safety sphere, agencies are being forced to monitor social media and other digital channels. “Social media from an organizational point of view has always been seen as a marketing tool, but they’re quickly becoming another route to requesting service. That requires a different type of person sitting in the operator chair.”

Is Operator 2.0 out there?

Many industries are struggling to find the talent they need to keep up with advancing technologies. This is especially true in control rooms.

In addition to technological demands, Brase says that demographic changes are putting more pressure on the operator’s role. As older operators retire, they take their experience and production insight with them. Add to that, the shrinking pool of skilled talent is making it more difficult to find equivalent replacements. “The people who have these skills are not usually interested in working in dull, dirty, dangerous or distant environments. They want to work in exciting, safe control room environments that are close to where they live.”

As a result, many control rooms are being managed by fewer, less seasoned operators who have a greatly expanded scope of work. Faced with these challenges, companies must understand that their operators are strategic resources, and to attract and retain that talent, they’re going to have to look to the efficiency of the workspace, create an ergonomic environment, and build in possibilities for continuous learning.


Traditional control rooms with multiple workstations for multiple systems—each with its own monitor, keyboard and mouse – aren’t going to work anymore. Operators need workspaces that are ergonomically designed to reduce fatigue and enhance operator effectiveness.

Emerson iOps powered by Barco OpSpaceA more optimized setup allows the operator to sit (or stand) at a single console and use state-of-the-art visualization technology to access data previously spread across the multiple workstations. They can arrange all of their displays in front of them into a layout that fits their preferences and is relevant to their tasks. “With a well-designed workspace, operators won’t have to roll their chairs all over the control room to look at unique displays on multiple monitors. It’s all right there.” An example of this is Emerson’s iOps Workspace Solution, powered by Barco OpSpace.

Ergonomics also applies to display graphics. Brase says that with early distributed control systems, the tendency was to make the graphics highly colorful—because the technology was available. Displays looked great, but they weren’t optimal for the operators because the complexity became distracting, making it difficult for operators to do their job.

“The best user interface takes human aspects into consideration. For example, Emerson’s new distributed control system operator interface, DeltaV Live, is based on human-centered design principles that consider how graphics design can impact and enhance operator performance. Monochrome images, for example, are used to represent normal conditions, while bright colors are reserved for abnormal situations or conditions that require the operator’s attention, such as alarms.”

Continuous learning

Effective training and ongoing learning will also be critical to attract and retain needed talent. Tools like off-line process simulations, for example, are highly effective in training operators.

“You have a simulated process in the cloud, which can be used to train operators on the exact process they’ll be managing. They can try things in simulation and not worry about how it will affect production. This gives an operator greater confidence and a higher level of expertise.”

The operator of today and in the future is simply going to have to be more skilled. Fortunately, they have new tools and new technologies that help make their jobs easier, safer and more productive. That’s good for everyone.

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About Todd Brase

Todd Brase from EmersonTodd Brase is responsible for marketing Emerson's project engineering and consulting services to manufacturers in the process control industries. He helps customers understand how Emerson’s Project Certainty approach to project execution can improve project performance and business results.

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