Control room displays—not just a pretty picture!

Bill Hollifield lambasts the ‘flashy graphics’ of modern HMIs as contributing to accidents.

Speaking at the API 2009 Control Room Forum in San Antonio late last year, PAS’ Bill Hollifield explained that the route to controller effectiveness was via optimum alarm management and ‘high performance’ human machine interaction (HMI). Hollifield, who wrote the book on HMI*, suggested that first, control room owner operators should fix the top 10 ‘bad actor’ alarms that make up 20-80% of entire alarm system load. Simple methods can be applied to rationalize bad alarms such as ‘chattering,’ ‘stale,’ ‘duplicate,’ and ‘Nuisance’ events. Alarm settings should be audited automatically to ensure they are not improperly changed and real-time, dynamic alarm management techniques used to reduce inappropriate activation. Poorly performing alarm systems and HMIs can be contributing factors to major accidents and poor operating performance. But the solutions to such problems are ‘well known and fully documented.’

On the topic of HMIs, Hollifield is categorical, today’s HMIs are poor! Control room graphical displays were introduced before any industry guidelines and best practices were established. Moreover, vendor HMI examples are some of the worst—concentrating on ‘flashy marketing graphics’ that sell a system! Hollifield showed a graphic of BP’s Texas City ISOM Unit HMI which he described as ‘essentially just a P&ID segment sprinkled with live valves,’ suggesting that this may have been a contributing factor in the explosion.

Displays should show information not data in a way that is relevant. Modern displays often show a paltry 5% of information with 95% of the screen occupied by a pretty picture. Analog displays can be powerful and schematics should show immediately where current information lies in the operating range. Color can confusion and needs thought. Other industries do it better—for instance aerospace where displays like the Garmin 1000 Avionics System provide a more rational gadget-free interface. Summing up, Hollifield noted that poor HMIs are commonplace and have been cited as contributing factors to both incidents and accidents. For a seven step guide to achieving a high performance HMI, read Hollifield’s book. More from links/1001_2a and links/1001_2b.

* The High Performance HMI Handbook.

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