Recent developments in technology, with safe high-speed communication lines combined with numerous digitalization solutions for automation and control, has opened up for new opportunities on how to design and set up the control function. The main objectives being increased personal safety (as fewer people will be working in hazardous areas) and cost savings, remote centralized control centers are now often preferred for new assets and upgrade projects.
The transition from local control rooms to remote control centers can be tough, but there are many ways to mitigate the challenges. In order to make a smooth transition, we need to consider all elements that will be affected by the move and ensure that we maintain them in every part of the transition process.
The first challenge is to fully understand what operations model is intended:
- Remote Support
- Shared Control
- Full Remotely Operated Control Room
Options b & c require connectivity that enables the remote operator to work in the same timeframe as an operator at the asset. Option c requires the integrity of the asset control room to be extended to and include the remote control room. The impact of a ‘loss of view’ in option c is so critical that a contingency plan to revert to the asset control room is essential and this may drive the business to choose option b, moving only certain roles to the remote control room.
Removing operators from the asset control room will disrupt any number of workflows between the outside operators and the control room operators. Operator Mobility solutions can repair those workflows and, in some cases, improve their efficiency. These solutions might include immersive video conferencing.
How do we retain the knowledge?
One of the most important things to remember when going from a local control room to an onshore operation center is to maintain the people currently working in the local control room. The “old guard” has a lot of information pertaining to the specific asset that needs to be handled and shared in the new control center, as the operator’s tacit knowledge is one of the most important resources in controlling the asset. The operators’ information and knowledge about the asset and the process might be different from what is written into the operating procedures, which is why it is always very important to have them be a part of the change strategy. We need to retain and implement the knowledge that only the experienced operators have into our new technology and systems. This can be done by having the operators participate in pre-studies and workshops to answer all questions and listen to what design people are thinking. Being transparent about the changes that will be implemented and how the operators will be affected is vital to the success of establishing an effective remote control function.
If you don’t have the people in the control room behind you, backing your project, then it will be a difficult transition. The control room operators need to be sure that their expertise on the asset is maintained in the new technology that is to be utilized. It is also no secret that when you’re moving a few local control rooms to be operated from one control center, you don’t need as many operators. The regular work tasks will also change for the control room operators, yet field operators will still be needed.
The technological challenges
When building a remote control center, we need to ensure that all technological solutions work seamlessly. This will also increase our chances of success, as the possibility for interacting with the people in the field is secured. It is even more important now than earlier to have multiple duplicated lines of communication from the field to the remote control center, as we need to be able to interact with field operators during possible situations and alert them of issues that needs to be dealt with. We need to be able to trust the technology and be certain that it won’t fail in critical situations.
New control centers are set up so we can analyze the situation proactively and communicate with the field operators. The tasks for control room operators in operation centers will be based more on analysis of data and acting proactively, rather than reacting to data, as is often more usual in the traditional local control rooms. This also means that new operators might have partly different training and that the requirements for control room operators’ skills will change in the future. Digitalization, new technology, and well-trained operators should lead to an increase in safety, as working proactively should lower the chances of any incidents and unplanned shutdowns.
However, the new work environment can also lead to new problems for the operators. Sitting day in and day out analyzing data can be boring, and fatigue is a well-established problem in the control room. This is why it is important to inspire operators, set up good tools with possibilities to run hypothetical scenarios so it is possible to train while you’re at work, and find ways your operators can share knowledge and interact.
As mentioned earlier, getting everyone’s “noses pointed” in the same direction is vital to the success of the transition. The process of moving from local to remote operation needs a “soft” touch, where every person in the process is taken care of and heard.