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Introduction to Alarm Management

In a previous article, “Put Bifocals on Your Process Control System”we touched on the benefits of using dashboards and overviews to yield reasonable improvement in situation awareness. This can serve as a “stop gap” in a legacy system where embarking on a complete HMI system upgrade project isn’t feasible. But what makes a good dashboard, and how do we go about building one?

By way of analogy, think about driving your car. What do you see on the instrument cluster when you drive? You have a speedometer, a tachometer, a fuel gauge, a water temperature gauge, and maybe some indicator of what gear/mode your transmission is in. You might call these key performance indicators (KPIs), and at a glance you can quickly make decisions about your vehicle’s operating health. As a driver, you don’t need much else to safely get to your destination and avoid expensive damage to your vehicle.

'If all the red warning lights come on, it means meltdown, so get out of the car fast!'But did you know that there are literally hundreds of sensors, instruments, and data points on a modern car? All of them are accessible and could be displayed on your car’s instrument cluster, but they are not. Why not? Imagine how confused you would be if you had all of those data points scattered on your dashboard: wheel speed, exhaust gas temperature, oxygen monitor, throttle position, etc. That data is not meaningful information to the typical driver just trying to drop the kids off at school. A mechanic, using the correct diagnostic computer and software, can access that data and make sense of it, but you as a driver simply don’t need it.

In our operating facilities we have a very similar scenario. We have flooded our operators with data, but we’ve done a terrible job of turning all that data into meaningful information. That is where dashboards can be an invaluable tool. If properly built, good dashboards can communicate large amounts of plant information clearly and effectively. However, that can only be achieved by applying visual design fundamentals – a skill set that few have. Fortunately, there are good resources out there. “Information Dashboard Design” by Stephen Few is one good example. Still, this is no quick undertaking and developing the skills required to be proficient should not be taken lightly.

Regardless of what resources you rely on, nearly all experts agree that the first step in designing a useful dashboard is assessing the needs of the intended user(s) of the dashboard. This involves talking to, and more importantly, listening to operators. Simply dropping a few fancy dashboard objects that are included in your DCS vendor’s software on a screen is a guaranteed way to waste time and money, in addition to ending up with a dashboard that is no better at enhancing situation awareness than the poorly designed screens that you’re seeking to replace.HMI Article Image #1

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen people make in dashboard/overview design is focusing too much on the objects themselves. Some attempt to convey too much data with a single object and the result is usually complexity and clutter. It should be remembered  that simple is usually better. The point of a dashboard is to provide a summary of what’s going on that can be assimilated quickly by the user. That can’t happen if one has to study and remember all the nuances of a complex object.

If you need to quickly develop visual design skills and assessment expertise, then consider hiring a subject matter expert to assist you with this critical first step to designing new, effective HMI systems. It is not just a fluffy human factors engineering exercise, it is critical to the success of a modern, effective, high-functioning HMI system.

While not purposed to be a comprehensive design manual, the recently released ANSI/ISA-101 Human Machine Interfaces for Process Automation Systems is a huge step in the right direction for industry. If followed, users can get a firm foothold on systematizing a framework for managing all aspects of their facility HMIs.

If you need help getting started with an HMI improvement project, click here to see if you qualify to have a subject matter expert review, assess, and provide you a FREE written report on your current HMI configuration and work practices.


Marcus Dudoit – Partner & Sr. Consultant – SYCON International, LLC
David P. Garcia, TiPS Inc.
Kelsey R. Wright, TiPS Inc.