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Operating practice: Your people as multivariable sensors

24 June 2008

While working on another story, a company manager I was interviewing made a thought-provoking statement about the role of human operators as sensors. He had a very interesting point.

The company in question had just made a major upgrade that included outfitting the plant with wireless infrastructure that supported walk-around HMI and control. In other words, all his operators had tablet computers that allowed them to do any of their control room functions from anywhere. The practical effect of this was that his experienced operators were getting out of the control room and closer to the actual equipment.

While this is certainly convenient, he said, a major benefit is that the people who can tell from the 'feel' of the machinery that things are running well or poorly are now back out where they can do the most good. Those critical people can now be near a machine to tell if things sound, look, feel, or smell right.

This is good, and is a major benefit of adding wireless infrastructure. However, the larger challenge is capturing this expert knowledge and making it part of a mechanism to help you when those key people have retired. This requires careful analysis of process instrumentation and control parameters during times operators are sensing particular quirks in process behaviour. So when 20-year-veteran Bob says, 'That doesn’t sound right,' it’s important to see what information you can collect from the instrumentation and process data at that moment. If Bob is, in fact, correct and there is a problem but you can’t see a difference in your data, either you have too few instruments or you’re monitoring the wrong things.

Ultimately, you have to build the same sensing capabilities into the process unit that Bob and others like him already have as human beings. Then his knowledge about what he has sensed has to become part of the mechanism. That may not be an easy task, but your long-term viability as a company could just depend on it.

—Peter Welander, process industries editor Process Instrumentation & Sensors Monthly


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