Towards a more user centred control system design

A control room in the industrial sector often comprises a wall of shining displays showing different parts of the production process. In her doctoral thesis, Veronika Domova aimed to develop a control system design, better adapted to human abilities.

In the ongoing fourth industrial revolution, large numbers of sensors, warning systems and networks are being installed, in order to make production even more cost- and time-efficient, as well as more secure. Smart systems measure, monitor and steer different parts of the industrial processes, and control rooms are packed with displays visually depicting the status of the production.
Automation and digitalization are quickly advancing. But something that does not change as quickly is our ability to perceive and prioritise all the information that washes over us – with and without a requirement for action.

Veronika DomovaVeronika Domova“Control rooms are designed using principles from decades ago, when it was actually possible to oversee an industrial process at once, which is not the case at the moment”, explains Veronika Domova, industry-based doctoral student at the division for Media and Information Technology and WASP doctoral student based at ABB in Västerås.

Divide into zones

At the same time she points out that there’s a big gap between the technology available on the market and the opportunities for interaction in an industrial control room.
“Dirty control rooms with old-fashioned technology scare off the younger generation. It’s a myth that in the future, industry won’t require any people. They’ll be needed to orchestrate the automation, which requires deep expertise”, Veronika Domova says.

An idea she puts forward in her thesis, and has support for in her research, is to divide the control room into different zones, which introduces certain freedom for interaction and allows the operator to, for instance, get a cup of coffee while staying informed about the status of the production. Currently, operators are tightly bound to their workplace and lose situation awareness the moment they leave the control station.

In the different zones, the operator can interact with the system in natural ways and have the information presented depending on his or her distance from the control station. In the closest zone, at the control station, the operator uses keyboard and mouse, as well as natural interaction means such as gaze, speech and palm gestures.
In the next zone, several metres from the control station, the operator can interact using body gestures. Also, the presentation on the displays becomes larger, so it is legible at a distance.
The third zone is activated when the operator is far away from the station or even not in the room. Here, the screens depict only the most important information, and directed sound and light signals convey if something is happening: green for all ok; yellow for warning; red for action required.
“I got a lot of positive feedback on this concept from some 60 people at a trade fair. It’s an elegant solution that is technically possible to execute. The technology exists and works”, Veronika Domova says.

Custom-tailored visualisation

She has also put a lot of thought into using sensory feedback such as a computer mouse that vibrates in order to indicate speed, gets hotter if the temperature increases in the process, etc.
“But I’ve concluded that there are better and more secure solutions for creating a sensory link between the operator and the industrial process.”
One method that she explored is custom-tailored visualisation: conveying the physicality and the status of the process using colour, shape and animation instead of showing long series of runtime values on the displays.

She has a few concrete examples in her thesis that concern the district heating domain. One example is the animated pipeline:
The animated pipelineThe delivery process is represented by red and blue pipes symbolizing hot and cold water flows respectively. The delivery end-points are presented as curves. The shape of a curve represents the consumption level, i.e. the height of a curve shows the amount of delivered energy and the color ratio depicts the balance between the delivered and the consumed energy. The animation of the curves reinforces the effect of the water being pumped. The animated back-ground, behind the curves, depicts the weather conditions: the colder the area, the bluer is the background. She has also studied various ways to direct the operator’s gaze towards the display that requires attention. One method is to blur all the other screens, and show visual cues, so the operator can quickly shift focus. Another is to dim secondary displays and brighten only the part that requires attention, so the operator notices the change in brightness with his or her peripheral vision.

“The test users disliked the first method, because they were interrupted in what they were doing, and lost control of it. They preferred the second method, which gave them a sense of greater control. But this is an area I’d like to investigate further: how visualisation and various signals can be used to direct people’s attention in a particular direction, before the situation escalates to an emergency”, she says.

Veronika DomovaVeronika DomovaVeronika Domova’s doctoral thesis consists of no less than 10 scientific articles, where the topics, although initially appearing disparate, all aim to answer the same questions: how should a control room be designed so that the control process is efficient, secure and in tune with people’s cognitive abilities, and how should the physical process and the controls interact.

WASP research

“Because I am an industrial PhD student, my works are often very applied and incorporate ideas that can be directly implemented in practice”, she says.
One example of such applied works is a project that concerns how to improve the user interface in the marine search and rescue systems that are being tested in the WASP* research arena for public safety, WARA-PS, where autonomous boats and drones collaborate with each other and with people to execute a rescue at sea.

“The concepts I propose in my thesis can improve the situation in the control rooms of today, but in the future, when the complexity of the industrial systems and amounts of delivered data grows even more, a completely new generation of tools and methods will become inevitable”, says Veronika Domova.

Designing visualization and interaction for industrial control rooms of the future, Veronika Domova, division for Media and Information Technology, Department of Science and Technology, Linköping University, Campus Norrköping 2020.
Principal supervisor: Professor Jonas Löwgren

* WASP stands for Wallenberg AI Autonomous Systems and Software Program

Veronika Domova defended her doctoral thesis on 21 August 2020: 

 

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