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The Control Room of the Future - Smarter Reality

Posted by Matt Robinson | Fri, Nov 01, 2013 0 Comments

"Do we do it the old, reliable way, or do we challenge ourselves to demonstrate new technology and use continuous improvement?" That was Kevin Dahm's question.

Dahm, a principal engineer in the Major Enterprise Projects (MEP) division at DTE Energy (, recently faced this issue while adding control room architecture to the flue gas desulfurization (FGD) equipment and controls on each of the four 800-megawatt, coal-fired units at its Monroe Power Plant near Detroit. The FGD process scrubs power plant emissions by using limestone slurry as a reagent to convert SO2 in the flue gas to a gypsum byproduct, which is then available for use in drywall, instead of ending up as landfill.

Adding FGD technology to Monroe's four units also required significant control integration within the existing control room footprint. "An early, in-house design used space within the existing Unit 3 and 4 control room to co-locate the FGD control room," says Dahm. "However, plant operations and the project team had a significant learning opportunity and developed lessons learned based on two years of Units 3 and 4's FGD operating experience. We recognized that we had one last chance to get the design correct and incorporate DCS capabilities, advanced technology and human-factor best practices into Units 1 and 2's design. This final design is planned to sustain the plant for the next 30 years of operating life."

As a result, Dahm, his project team and plant operations developed a decision document and criteria that focused on a centralized, combined FGD control room philosophy, which included all four unit-specific FGD controls, as well as all common equipment shared by those plants, such as conveyors, air and water systems. The team worked with operations, enlisted a consultant, Human Centered Solutions (HCS,, and ABB ( to specify its 800xA DCS control system. The team worked on control room design, appropriate HMI colors, lighting, monitor locations and followed ISA's ( 18.2 guidelines for alarm management and situational awareness. HCS is one of the 14 members of the 20-year-old Abnormal Situation Management Consortium (ASMC,

However, they weren't out of the old-control-room wilderness just yet.

New Gizmos, Persistent Problems

As the design debate at DTE Energy shows, there are several tectonic shifts shaking the world of control room design as its inhabitants strive to embrace the future:

  • Many smaller and formerly separate control rooms are merging into larger, centralized "control and collaboration centers;"
  • New interfaces and networking are allowing operators to perform more control room-type tasks remotely and move operators further away from their process applications, which can help improve safety;
  • Tablet PCs and other handheld interfaces are allowing operators to take more control room data and functions into the field; and
  • More accessible and voluminous data and more powerful software are enabling modeling and simulation to get much closer to real-time optimization.

These earthquakes in control room design and capabilities are enabled and driven by the same faster, cheaper data processing and networking that's transforming most process control applications and other industries. However, even though smart phones, tablet PCs, 3-D displays, closer-to-real-time simulations, video game-style interfaces, "augmented reality" devices and other new tools are becoming available to help in the control room, they can't substitute for a complete assessment of an application's requirements thorough planning before construction, and meeting the functional needs of its operators.

Think, Plan, Then Build

While it's logical to think that industrial facilities should be built around their operators for maximum efficiency, such has not been the case throughout history. Manufacturing structures, including process applications, were all built around big-ticket equipment, and operators and technicians were thrown in as an afterthought. Even now, most control rooms are built first, many screens are added and optimum arrangement is considered last—if at all.

"Builders try to arrange their large screens so people can see them, so they're usually driven to theater-style displays without thinking about the best ways to support control room activities," says Dr. Peter Bullemer, a past principal investigator at ASMC and senior partner at HCS. He and his colleagues at ASMC stress that new and renovated control rooms must seek to meet the cognitive and physical needs of users and support their ability to stay alert and aware—even though users don't want to change from what they had before.

"Preference doesn't equal a performance requirement," adds Dr. Dal Vernon Reising, also a past principal investigator at ASMC and senior partner at HCS. "Operators used to want dark control rooms and black-background screens, and today they want to sweep their hands over software objects on huge flatscreens, but neither means they're getting a sense of where their process application is actually at."

To create a better control room, Bullemer adds that builders must start with the functions and needs of their operators and how they interact, and capture those requirements in their designs. "If you're building a control room, we say that you have to start from the inside out," says Bullemer. "You have to first understand the operators and what they need on their consoles, and then arrange those consoles based on how they collaborate. Then you define who the operators interact with and prioritize who needs to have access or be next to the control room. Finally, you branch out to the rest of the facilities and the building. And, in the unified control and collaboration centers that are growing up, designers need to think even more about individual user tasks, integrating formerly separate roles and effective workflow."

Clusters and Collaboration Centers

Perhaps the biggest evolution in control rooms—and the best indication of their future direction—is this recent gathering together of previously separate control rooms into joint control and collaboration centers with added space for field operators, contractors, managers and other visitors—and even nearby, dedicated conference rooms for strategy meetings.

For instance, Borregaard ( recently worked with User Centered Design Services Inc. (UCDS, and Honeywell Process Solutions ( to improve efficiency and collaboration, as well as cope with a 30% workforce reduction, by consolidating eight control rooms into one at its pulp and paper plant and biorefinery in Sarpsborg, Norway, just south of Oslo. Efforts to revamp the control room began two years ago, and the new facility opened last summer.

Previously, like most legacy control facilities, Borregaard's former control rooms had a patchwork of control systems with traditional instruments, DCS panels, PLCs and some black-screen PCs that had accumulated over 30 years. However, they weren't well integrated; most of its processes had no common optimization strategy; and it wasn't using much of its data to improve its operating intelligence. Because its processes couldn't be shut down, Borregaard worked with UCDS to redeploy its staff and implemented Honeywell's Experion PKS controls in pieces, implementing its standard DCS and PLC interfaces and server boxes.

"Some operators, especially those in the chlorine plant, were very concerned about migrating to a unified control room," says Ian Nimmo, president of UCDS. "So we all looked at what was needed to bring each process to a safe state. Next, the operators were allowed to throw every obstacle and scenario they could at the new control system plan, pick holes in each other's design, and this gave them enough confidence that their attitudes changed. We also organized the staff into dedicated inside control operators and dedicated outside field operators to close gaps and reduce running back and forth," explains Nimmo. "Now, they have a beautiful, well-lighted control room, server rack room across the hall and a vision for the next 20 years." (Figure 1)

Indelac  Smart Control Room

Open Spaces

Figure 1: Operators control Borregaard's pulp and paper processes from their new, spacious, well-lit control room, which has dedicated conference, support, exercise and visitor areas at the back.
Courtesy of Borregaard and User Centered Design Services


Likewise, the Linde Industrial Gases division ( of Linde Group AG reports it's established the first of several large remote operations facilities for more efficient, centralized control of its air-separation plants in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Linde's goal is to eventually control all of its plants worldwide with just eight remote operation centers (ROCs). In fact, Linde reports that in the year since its ROC project started, its initial plants in Schkopau, Hamburg, Salzgitter and Basel have been integrated, and are now being controlled from its headquarters in Leuna. It plans to add another 70 facilities gradually.

Each ROC will provide all the local HMI functions of Linde's remote process control systems via terminals, which will reduce time-consuming and costly on-site assignments, and help coordinate maintenance and shutdowns. Meanwhile, special functions such as automatic load control (ALC) and linear model predictive control (LMPC) allow continuous plant operation within optimum working ranges, which also boosts productivity and saves energy. These plants use Siemens Industry's ( Simatic PCS 7 to automate their air-separation and gas production.

"The local personnel still look after the plant on the day shift," explains Dr. Joachim Pretz, Linde's ROC manager in Leuna. "Metaphorically, the operator and local engineers are the aircraft crew, and the ROC is the tower, which is manned 24/7 with air traffic controllers." Consequently, each ROC's operator watches over five air separation units with two monitors each.

Show, Don't Tell

Unfortunately, even after planning ahead to design a user-centered control room, unexpected snags can still pop up. For example, after seeking input from a cross section of operators, the FGD project team at DTE Energy proposed a model for final review and approval. However, decisions of this type typically need a broader level of engagement for final approval and sign off. In this case, the team was confident in its development work, but the higher-level operations committee questioned some recommendations.

"It felt like back to the drawing board," says Dahm, who quickly developed and deployed an experiment and countermeasure to compare designs for the control room. "I took over a conference room in mid-January to create a mock control room," explains Dahm. "To make it realistic in size and feel, we hung up sheets to establish wall space and dimensional correctness. We built ¼-in. plywood console sections, copied ABB's graphics onto foam board for displays, and this gave us life-sized models of each control room design (Figure 2). The operations committee members reviewed the mock-ups, and were given tape measures, staplers and tape to modify the designs. They were able create an enhanced version of the project team's design that would be acceptable to everyone."

Indelac Controls Smart Control Room

Reality-Aided Design

Figure 2: To compare old and new control room designs, engineers in DTE Energy's Major Enterprise Projects division hung bedsheets, cut 1/4-inch plywood and pasted up HMI and display graphics. This allowed operators to physically compare the traditional, cramped horseshoe design (left) with a more open, user-focused design (right) that places control stations on opposite side, and provides dedicated workspace for other staffers.
Courtesy of DTE Energy

By using this simple, low-cost countermeasure, the teams aligned their thinking and reached a best alternative solution that combined of a lot of new and some old thinking into a collaborative, positive plan. Dahm's design facilitated this outcome, in which operations could observe firsthand the real issues surrounding performance-related dilemmas and human factors. These included openness, visibility, ergonomics, lighting, access and overall workflow.

"So, in the end, operations' leadership accepted our modified plan, and we now have a human factors-compliant control room," he adds. The new user-centered FGD control room is scheduled to be built at the Monroe plant during July and August of this year.

Simulation and Virtualization

Another toolset sure to be crucial in future control rooms is closer-to-real-time simulations to help manage and optimize process applications. For example, DuPont ( has been using advanced regulatory control (ARC) applications and its rigorous modeling and simulations for many years, but lately some DuPont engineers have been using rapid prototyping methods to help choose, implement and gain model-predictive control's (MPC) benefits in smaller applications where it makes economic or operational sense. To aid these efforts, DuPont is using the recent integration between Aspen Technology Inc.'s ( aspenOne APC software and its Hysys dynamic modeling and simulation software to refine and increase its smaller-scale MPC implementations by 450%.

"Basically, this capability facilitates appropriate use of MPC in more applications, which is part of DuPont's best practices and Six Sigma approach," says Phillip "Dave" Schnelle, principal consultant in DuPont's Process Dynamic and Controls group. "Rapid prototyping is part of our application development flow for APC. It allows us to screen APC applications and answer the question 'ARC or MPC?' We run Aspen APC on our central server in Wilmington, Del., and hook it up to data sources, such as Aspen's standard InfoPlus.21 (IP21) historian, at any of our plants worldwide via a process data connection. We can mock up and prototype MPC applications connected to real process data. We can then show operations: 'This is your plant on your current controls, and this would be your plant on APC.'

"Rapid prototyping helps us make the 'go or no go' decision. We can quickly test and train on the concept; transfer ideas to the operators; develop MPC models; and do it all without spending a lot upfront. Once we know a project will succeed, much of the design has already been done, and we have most of the application already to go."

Likewise, Barrick Gold Corp. ( is using MiMiC simulation software from Mynah Technologies LLC ( to help it develop "virtual plants" that operate several applications at its new Pueblo Viejo goldmine in the Dominican Republic. MiMiC replicates the actual DeltaV controls and I/O components of several major ore processing subsystems, which can be used for training, testing and production evaluation. This lets Barrick's operators test process reactions without impacting the real facility, which can save huge amounts of energy, labor and materials.

"Many process industries are getting more interested in simulations because traditional testing and evaluations are too cumbersome, time consuming and costly. And, using simulations to test logic and control strategies can find major issues before they ever reach the plant, instead of six months after the factory acceptance test (FAT), which can be 100 times more expensive," says Martin Berutti, Mynah's president and COO. "Future control rooms are going to use a lot more of these tools, and they'll be more highly automated and regulated. So, operators will have to man up to higher technical levels, manage more workers in the field and move from using just primary data such as sensor readings to also handling metadata about the quality of those readings."

To give power plant operators some of this new training, the U.S. Department of Energy's (DoE) National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) and its Advanced Virtual Energy Simulation Training and Research (AVESTAR) Center ( are providing simulation-based training by deploying a first-of-its-kind simulator for an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plant with CO2 capture. Based on Invensys Operations Management's ( SimSci-Esscor Dynsim software, this dynamic, high-fidelity simulator provides realistic training on IGCC plant operations, including normal and faulted operations, plant start-up, shutdown and power-demand load changes.

In its next phase, AVESTAR will incorporate Invensys' EyeSim software to add immersive, 3D, virtual reality to the training experience. This will extend training beyond the control room and allow field operators to perform manual functions, such as opening or closing valves, or start or stop pumps from anywhere within the IGCC plant.

Wearing a stereoscopic headset or eyewear, trainees enter a virtual environment that allows them to move freely throughout the simulated 3D facility to study and learn various aspects of IGCC plant operation, control and safety. Using gamepads for navigation, users can interact with plant equipment items, activate transparent views, display pop-up trends and experience equipment sound effects, malfunctions and visual training scenarios (Figure 3)

Smart Control Room 3 resized 600

Cutaway Column

Figure 3: Trainees at the Advanced Virtual Energy Simulation Training and Research Center can wear a stereoscopic headset or eyewear to enter a virtual environment, move freely throughout its simulated 3D facility, use gamepads to interact with plant equipment items, and experience visual training scenarios, such as this operating distillation column.
Courtesy of Invensys and AVESTAR

Besides simulating processes, some users are even reproducing their control rooms in virtual formats. For instance, Grizzly Oil Sands ( in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is using improved, steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) produce more than 5000 barrels of heavy crude oil per day in the first phase of its Algar Lake Project. However, to make its SAGD process more efficient, Grizzly has developed an innovative facilities model, Advanced Relocatable Modular Standard, to reduce costs, risks and the environmental footprint of its in-situ thermal development, and is working with Rockwell Automation's ( Global Services Division and its PlantPAx process automation system.

"For our facility model, we needed an advanced, integrated process and motor control system that would monitor multiple SAGD sites from one central location, now and as we expand," says Brian Harrison, Grizzly's engineering vice president. As a result, Grizzly will build a shadow control room founded on a virtualized computing environment at its Calgary headquarters to monitor and control current and future oil sands sites across northern Alberta.


Jim Montague


Chemical Processing


Putman Media, Inc.


Mar 5, 2012