Tip #35: Operators Can Make or Break an Automation Project

The following tip is from a new book by Greg McMillan and Hunter Vegas titled 101 Tips for a Successful Automation Career, inspired by the ISA Mentor Program. Today’s Tip #35 is by Hunter Vegas.

101 Tips for a Successful Automation CareerSenior management holds the purse strings, engineers do the design, and Production/Operations supervisors dictate what they want, but the operator (who will use the system 99.9% of the time) rarely gets much involvement in the design of a control system. However, that group, above all others, will ultimately determine whether the project is a success or a failure.

Concept: The operators are critical to an automation project’s success. They must be engaged early and often or a negative outcome is highly probable.

Details: Over the course of a typical automation project, engineering and production management are in constant contact, refining the technical details and sorting out operability requirements. The system is designed, fabricated, installed, and tested and then promptly tossed to the operators to use from that point forward. This operational transition period tends to be overlooked or minimized, yet it is absolutely critical to the ultimate success of the project. If the operators hate the new system or are poorly trained on it, failure is highly likely.

Operators use the system every hour of every day, yet they are often minimally involved in the design of the system. Sometimes the Management or Production staff intentionally decides to exclude them, sometimes the operators are offered an opportunity to participate but are too busy or uninterested to be bothered. Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that if the operators are NOT involved, project risk escalates dramatically.

It is the automation engineer’s job to GET the operators involved by whatever means it takes. As a minimum get one or two of the more experienced operators to review graphics as they are produced so they are continuously involved in the process. As new graphics and modules are completed (with imbedded simulation), release them to the operators for review and/or training. Invite at least two of the most respected operators to the Factory Acceptance Test (FAT). If they ask for changes that are easily made, give them what they ask for. If they ask for a difficult change, explain why that particular change is difficult and offer alternatives that may accomplish the same goal. Strive to make the operators feel a part of the process and that their requests are being heard. Buy-in is crucial.

Watch-Outs: In these days of lean staffing, plant operators simply may not have the time to review a new system even if it is available. This can be a difficult situation, but it can be rectified if the plant is willing to pay the operators overtime to spend an hour or two on the system before/after their shift. Probably the best way to encourage this behavior is to have a “test” associated with the new system that must be passed prior to allowing the operators onto the new system.

Exceptions: If the plant and/or process are new, the operators may not have been hired or may not yet be officially assigned to the plant. In this case it may be possible to arrange operator reviews of the graphics as a training exercise (assuming they are available).

Insight: Many control systems make it easy to create low level simulations of the process. It does not require much programming effort to allow valves to open/close, pumps to start/stop, PID control loops to hold a setpoint, and levels and flows to realistically change. Even the simplest simulation allows a thorough testing of a complex control system and is often a great tool for operator training (now and in the future).

Rule of Thumb: Get the operators involved in the design process early and listen to what they say. They will use the system 99.9% of the time and their buy-in and ultimate approval are critical to an automation project’s success.

Look for another tip next Friday.


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