Are DCS suppliers really helping control room operators and their successors with their new technology, or are they just helping themselves?
I’m currently researching the training that is offered to process operators and technicians as part of an article that will appear in the next issue of Process Engineering.
Process industries skills body Cogent has identified operators and technicians as the roles most susceptible to loss of expertise through an ageing workforce, and has come up with a number of initiatives to help bring through the next generation.
These include the well-established Gold Standard certification of training courses for those working in the process industries, and the newly launched skillsstore.com, an online shop for process training courses.
I decided to speak to Cogent about the issue of an ageing workforce (and the training of their successors) after it was referenced repeatedly by Invensys executives launching the new version of the Foxboro distributed control system (DCS), Foxboro Evo, in Texas earlier this month.
Invensys says it needs to hold the hands of the next generation of control room operators
During the launch much was made of Foxboro Evo’s refined human interface, with on-screen displays that are much more simple and user-friendly.
This development was, according to executives, driven by two interlinked market issues: firstly, sensors and devices around process plants are generating more data than ever before, and if not managed carefully this data can lead to “information overload” for those working in control rooms; secondly, because operators and technicians are getting older, as they leave they take their in-depth knowledge of how how process plants work – and therefore which information generated by a DCS is important to filter-out and focus on.
In short, Invensys says it needs to hold the hands of the next generation of control room operators.
And it’s not just Invensys making such claims: Honeywell is currently on the road with its user group symposium. A key theme of the Americas event, which will be followed by the EMEA event in France in November, was the control room of the future. Features included a dashboard to help better manage control-system cyber security, advanced virtualisation technology and a console for its Experion Process Knowledge System (PKS) Orion platform that reduces operator fatigue through improved ergonomic design. This features a larger display and new alarm lighting.
DCS technology has been around for a long time and these companies are finding it difficult to differentiate themselves
Frost and Sullivan analyst Karthik Sundaram
But are these issues of ageing workforce, information overload and operator fatigue really as significant as control systems vendors are making out? I spoke to an analyst yesterday who was very cynical about both the significance of these issues and the vendors’ motives.
“DCS technology has been around for a long time and these companies are finding it difficult to differentiate themselves,” said Frost and Sullivan industry analyst for Industrial Automation & Process Control, Europe Karthik Sundaram.
“Any changes they make will have a novelty value, but beyond a certain point I don’t think they will be of great use to the end user. Once [the end user] gets familiar with the changes they will lose their novelty value and I don’t think they will offer any long term changes to the way the operator works.”
Sundaram pointed to developments around virtual reality as the real technology that could be truly groundbreaking for control room operators.
In the meantime, the question remains: are DCS suppliers really helping the aged and their successors with their new technology, or are they just trying to help themselves in an extremely competitive (and perhaps crowded) market?