Tailoring Control Rooms To Human (A)Gain

By Vivekanand


Control Room – quite arguably – has become indispensable in most applications, across the domains today. Particularly, in segments like corporate, transport, defence, SmartCity, and, to a good extent in Government (security), it comes out more critically manifesting. The more the solutions evolve, the more may be the intrigue with it, unless mapped methodically. Here is one perspective. Read on:

Psychological studies show that interpretation and retention are reduced during periods of stress, which leads to overload and operator error.

Since the dawn of the digital age, industry has been focused on improving the Human-Machine Interface (HMI) associated with the developing digital technology. The primary aim was to optimize the machines by allowing humans to interact with them more efficiently. What has not been a primary focus during the digital age evolution is the impact this technology has caused on Human Factors (HF). In my travels, I often hear the terms Human Factors and Human-Machine Interface used interchangeable. In actuality these terms are far from synonymous. HMI refers to the Human interaction with the display, computer, and software that serve as the human’s interface to applications present on the computer system. The industry focus on HMI and evolution since the dawn of the digital age has created systems highly optimized for the human interaction.

Over the years the control room operator’s tasks have become increasingly complex. The number of sources and data inputs has grown massively, while regulations, industry standards, and individual companies, operating procedures strictly control how the plethora or operator applications are integrated. In this I will concentrate more on some of the underlying technology issues that have a significant impact on operator efficiency. Resolving these issues can boost operator efficiency as well as job satisfaction.

At one end of the spectrum, we find operator workspaces composed of numerous applications, all running on stand-alone systems. Monitoring and control are conducted via separate operator stations, each with a dedicated screen, mouse and keyboard. Function key and HMI (Human Machine Interface) conventions also vary from application to application. For reporting tasks, operators must gather information from multiple systems − which is time-consuming, slowing down operator response times, and requiring the operator to remember information from several different systems (because drag & drop is not available across these disparate systems). Sounds like a recipe for disaster? It is … tried and tested.


Integrated systems, on the other hand, provide many advantages and opportunities. At the positive end of the spectrum, we have control rooms in which all necessary process control and safety information is presented by a single integrated system allow information from different sources to be made available to other support applications (such as Information Management Systems, shift logs, production monitoring, etc.), so that reports, key performance indicators and other data can be easily shared. Such a system enables reports to be generated and distributed automatically, relieving the operator of this task. The main drawback of such a solution, however, is the cost, time and effort of implementation. But there might be a more practical way − the sweet spot − to achieving higher operator efficiency: some level of desktop integration that is more cost- and time-effective than full system integration and that does not risk invalidating application warranties and maintenance agreements.

At the negative end of the spectrum, we find control rooms with a lot of separate system hardware components assembled in an ad hoc, haphazard way. The result is a confused layout and cluttered workstations, with no overall structure, requiring operators to move both physically and mentally between systems. When operators must move from one system to another to complete a task, the chance of human error increases, and the movement might cause a delay in noticing an event. This can slow down operator response time and leaves little chance for an early recovery. KVM (keyboard, video and mouse) switches can reduce the number of keyboard and mouse sets, but they require the operator to manually select which system the KVM is connected to. Also, KVM solutions − typically a one-application / one-screen concept − have very limited flexibility with regard to optimizing visualization.

The rise and fall of emulation solutions

During the evolution of the operator workspace, the non-convergence of HMI and HF problem continued to grow. Many attempts were made using different technologies to solve the non-convergence of HMI and HF problem. While each approach addressed a specific issue in the non-convergence of HMI and HF, the utopic solution was never achieved. Below figure summarizes the more popular approach that was used in the late 1990s and is still used today.


Key Strength

Key Weakness

Traditional KVM switches

Latency performance

High networking cost, no multi viewing, no collaboration

Hardware KVM over IP

Latency performance & IP networking

No VDI integration and no collaboration

A/V multi viewers

Multi viewing

No VDI integration and no collaboration

Software KVM over IP

Cost & IP networking compatibility

Multi-source/Display support

Virtual desktop infrastructure

Performance and IP net-working compatibility

Multi source/Display support

Visual Integration is the key

System integration also has a significant effect on the HMI − the operator’s window into his/her world. Good HMIs are the key to great Situational Awareness. On the other hand, disparate HMIs increase operator workload and the risk of error. Compounding the problem, operators might not always be physically in front of the right application or screen at the right moment. This makes it difficult to gather the right information in a timely manner to diagnose problems. Worse yet, this information may even be obscured by another application window that is irrelevant to the situation. At the extreme end of the spectrum, where control room design follows standards such as ISO 110643 , we find fully integrated HMIs based on a user-centered design process underpinned by an HMI Philosophy and an HMI Style Guide. However, such an approach may not be easy to apply to upgrades, where legacy equipment and systems are involved, or in some industries where many different vendors and different types of applications are involved.

Visual Integration delivers many of the Benefits – but avoids the cost-of multi-application HMI integration

There is good news though. Technology has evolved within the visualization space so that there is an alternative for such extreme levels of HMI integration as mentioned above. Visual integration delivers many of the benefits − but avoids the cost − of multi-application HMI integration. This means that the right information can be presented directly in front of the operator precisely when he needs it. A visually integrated system also allows for the single mouse and keyboard interaction. Plus, visual integration also allows the operator to optimize his environment to his personal needs or the requirements of operations in normal or special event mode. Another benefit of this approach is that it enables operators to save their personalized settings and activate them at any operator workstation at any time. Finally, the flexibility of visual integration does not compromise corporate policies and procedures regarding the IT infrastructure.

Now the operators can have all their applications in one pixel space using just one keyboard, mouse, and audio.

*Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Systems Integration Asia Oct-Nov 2016 issue.