This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features Brad Adams Walker discussing the human factor in control room design. Brad explores what those factors are, how they influence a control room’s design, and the overall benefit of having a properly designed control room.
In this episode, you will learn about the iterative process and its importance, why human intervention is still necessary in the control room, and what control rooms are headed towards in the future.
Human Factor in Control Room Design Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms:
- Brad Adams Walker is the Architect, President & Founding Principal at his company BAW Architecture. Brad completed his first control room design in 1987 and founded BAW Architecture in 1992. He has practiced architecture in Denver, Colorado since 1978. Early in his career, he concentrated on developing long-term relationships with his clients, which later became the foundation for launching the business and sustaining its rapid growth. Brad’s focus on specialized areas of practice, such as Control Building Design, led to commissions that earned him international recognition relatively early in his career. Connect with Brad on LinkedIn.
- BAW Architecture has been leading the industry in mission-critical, 24/7 control room design for the last 25 years. They design control rooms, control buildings and operation camps that feature a operator-driven approach, and integrate architectural, interior design and human factors elements to optimize performance. Their buildings for Fortune 100 companies in the oil & gas, mining, utilities and transportation industries can be found throughout the world.
- Human Factors is the application of psychological and physiological principles to the engineering and design of products, processes, and systems.
- HFE (Human Factors Engineering) is a discipline that aims to systematically address human–system issues via practical activities applied during the design, fabrication, construction and decommissioning of oil and gas facilities.
- ISO (The International Organization for Standardization) is an international standard development organization composed of representatives from the national standards organizations of member countries.
- ISO 11064 provides a generic framework for applying requirements and recommendations relating to ergonomic and human factors in designing and evaluating control centres with the view to eliminating or minimizing the potential for human error
- PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) is responsible for providing pipeline safety oversight through regulatory rulemaking, NTSB recommendations, and other important functions to protect people and the environment through the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials.
HMI (Human Machine Interface) is the user interface that connects an operator to the controller in pipeline operations. High-performance HMI is the next level of taking available data and presenting it as information that is helpful to the controller in understanding the present and future activity in the pipeline.
Human Factor in Control Room Design Full Episode Transcript:
Russel Treat: Welcome to the “Pipeliners Podcast”, episode 280 sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, driving safety, environmental protection, and sustainability across the natural gas and oil industry through world class standards and safety programs.
Since its formation as a standard setting organization in 1919, API has developed more than 800 standards to enhance industry operations worldwide. Find out more about API at API.org.
Announcer: The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations. Now, your host, Russel Treat.
Russel: Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time. To show the appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener every episode. This week, our winner is Nate Debello with NiSource. Congratulations, Nate. Your YETI is on its way to learn how you can win this signature prize, stick around till the end of the episode.
This week, we’re going to be speaking to Brad Adams Walker about human factors in control room design. A unique perspective from an architect. Brad, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.
Brad Adams Walker: Thank you. Pleasure to be on board.
Russel: I got to tell you, I’m excited about this conversation. Before we get going, let me ask you, if you would, could you give us a little bit of an introduction? Tell us a little bit about who you are and your background.
Brad: Sure, sure. I’m an architect by education and training. I grew up here in Denver and went to school here in Denver. I thought that I’d be designing high rise office buildings in Denver, but I had other opportunities that came along.
I designed a control center in the late 1980s. Didn’t know what a control center was. Didn’t know what an operator was, but I took what I had been learning in designing office spaces and put that into the design. It was received quite well. I never thought I would do another one, but it was a small project for Total Petroleum, 2,500 square feet.
A few months later, Chevron contacted me and said, “We’d like to talk with you about doing a control center for us.” I said, “Sure.” I did one for them and did another one for them and decided that I wanted to devote my career to control centers. Had some nice opportunities with nice clients.
I started the company in 1992 with the purpose of specializing in control centers. We started off in refining in the oil and gas sector refining and pipelines. Worked in the chemical arena utilities, mining, transportation. We’ve covered most of the industries in designing control centers over the last 30 years.
Small business, my core group is architects, interior designers and human factors specialists, but we have a full team that can take on any size control center, new and renovated. We can handle the mechanical, electrical structural, really all of the disciplines that are involved in designing a control center.
Our work has been global. We’ve managed many projects around the world. What we do, Russel, is we facilitate the design process. That’s an important part of the discussion of human factors is the design process.
Our deliverables are drawings and specifications that document the process and then are ultimately used for construction and permitting, bidding, and that sort of thing, but that’s of us in a nutshell.
Russel: It’s fascinating to me a couple of things. We actually have something in common. I went to university to study Civil Engineering structural, because I wanted to build high rises and bridges, which I’ve never done. I have built some metal buildings in my Air Force career. I did construction long enough to know that that’s not what I wanted to do with my life.
It’s interesting how, as you journey out, you have an idea about your career, and then you engage with people in the market and those ideas kind of shift and change, so we have that story in common.
The other thing I find really interesting and unique is you mentioned human factors. I don’t know of any other architecture firm that does or has human factors experts on staff. That’s unusual, at least in my experience. Wouldn’t you say that’s true?
Brad: I believe so. That was our angle at the very beginning even though I didn’t know what human factors were. I was leaning in that direction. As we learned more about that discipline, we began to integrate it and apply it more into our projects.
Russel: Maybe we ought to do a definition of human factors. I’m the same way. I did not know about human factors until much later in my career when I started looking at the regulatory requirements of control rooms and started looking at all these other things about lighting, HVAC, ergonomics, lines of sight, and all these things that I had never really considered as important to a 24/7 control room.
Maybe we should give people, how would you define human factors?
Brad: In this realm of talking about human factors, we have to be careful because human factors people tend to use an awful lot of words to describe something that is fairly simple. I’ll try to cut through the word salad of human factors. It’s really taking the discipline of physiology, which is a branch of biology, and studying the normal operations of human beings.
Most of us are born with 10 fingers, two hands, two feet, and two eyes. We’re all about this tall and our arms are all about this long. How do we take that knowledge and the knowledge of physiology, the discipline of physiology, and apply it to human tasks, repetitive tasks. That’s where we really get into what human factors is all about.
When a person is working, most of us now are using a keyboard, screens, and that sort of thing. An operator who’s working shift work, managing some kind of a process – pipeline, refining, utility – is overwhelmed with information. We need to help that operator, we should help that operator learn how to do his or her job better.
It’s really, though, addressing human error. We’re trying to minimize human error. We’re in a world of what’s called the man-machine interface. Humans are using computers and technology in a repetitive manner, in an automated manner. How do we help that human being do their work better, minimize risk?
Interesting story that I mentioned is that HFE came out of the middle part of the 20th century. It got its birth in what was called the cockpit studies where fighter pilots really exist for one reason, and that’s to take down the enemy’s planes. That’s how they were measuring success. The government was doing studies on the type of people that were the best fighter pilots, etc.
They also discovered that if they could make some minor arrangements in the cockpit that would help the pilot in what they called the kill list. It was dramatic if they could just make some minor adjustments, listen to the pilot about how these pilots’ equipment should work .
Russel: Brad, I could talk to you for a long time about this. When I was first going out and doing control room management presentations and explaining what control room management was all about, this would have been in 2008, 2009 through about 2013, I use the cockpit example.
That cockpit science comes out of World War II. A lot of people don’t know this, but early in the war, we were losing more pilots in training than we were in combat.
Brad: That’s right.
Russel: The reason was they were changing between multiple airframes. They would start in a single engine, open cockpit aircraft, and then move through various aircraft as they moved into the aircraft they were going to fly in combat.
Every one of those aircraft had a slightly different set up for the controls, the instrumentation, throttle, all the things you use to drive the airplane. What they found is that there’s this issue of situational awareness.
If you’re a pilot, you know about the sacred six, my altimeter, my speed, my compass, my horizon indication, all that stuff that tells me where the aircraft is in space. I have to be able to read that, and that has to tell me when I’m in a stall, what is the stall I’m in? From that, I determine how to recover.
What they found is they were taking these guys and teaching them abnormal flight in these aircraft. They were having trouble making the transition from the previous airframe and its set of instrumentation and controls.
Out of that became the cockpit studies, and that evolved into, how do we make the cockpit more efficient for killing the enemy? If you look at aviation, the bus drivers, if you will, there’s a whole different kind of study around all that.
All that is directly applicable to what we do in the control room. It’s fascinating, the teams they had to build to figure this stuff out, because it wasn’t an engineering science alone. It was an engineering science, and a neuroscience, and a physiology science, and they had to figure all of that out. It’s fascinating.
Brad: I agree. As I look back on my career, I don’t know that I realized at the beginning the depth of this building type that we call control centers, various industries. It’s fascinating. The depth there is incredible.
Russel: Absolutely. How do human factors influence architectural design?
Brad: It’s all about the process. It’s all about the design process. Human factors start with the operator. We use language like designing it from the inside out, starting with the design of the operator at the console or the equipment that he’s using.
Using human factors properly involves two considerations. One is that we include the end users, the people who are going to be using the equipment, going to be using the console control room. We include those people in the design process. That’s number one.
Number two is that the process is iterative. We are creating a solution based upon discovering the unique requirements for this particular control room that we’re working to design. It’s not a linear process. It’s not like a lawyer determining facts in a case.
This is what we call an iterative process. We’re creating a new solution based upon understanding the requirements for the operators in this particular situation. There’s a couple of important references, regulatory or best practices, that we refer to. One is ISO 11064. That’s an International Standards Organization.
They came on the scene in about the late ’90s, maybe 2000, and became the foundation for a number of things in manufacturing industries. They have a section on control rooms, the cradle to grave recommendations for how to go about doing it.
The two important parts of it, there’s many important parts, but one is the iterative process and including the end users in the design process. That will manifest in the lighting of the control room, the acoustics, the traffic flow, the number of screens in the control room that the operator is working with.
It’s focusing on, as I said, the man-machine interface of working in that environment. Of course, in the pipeline industry, there’s another important consideration or reference point, and that’s PHMSA. It’s a regulatory requirement that’s dealing with the policies and procedures of pipeline control centers.
Those are the two primary ones that we bring to people’s attention when they’re thinking about a pipeline control room. There’s certainly many others. It’s a highly regulated industry.
The goal is to take standards, go through this iterative process with the input of the end user, and come up with a design that aligns the management’s vision with the operational culture of a facility and how they’re going to do what they do.
Whether it’s getting throughput on a pipeline, or refining a product, or shipping it, those processes and requirements are much the same for each type of control room that we work in these various industries.
Russel: For the listeners’ benefit, it’d be helpful to disclose how I came across Brad. We have a shared customer, where we’re working together on a project. I’ve probably done a dozen, dozen and a half various control room projects over my career.
I’ve worked with a number of architects. Brad and his firm was the first firm that came in and they knew as much, if not more than me, about human factors in the control room. That made the process a real joy.
The other thing I would say is they have a very well defined process, and they very gently but firmly hold the customer to the process, which, having done a lot of control room projects, and particularly the high performance HMI designs, because there’s a lot of corollaries between the physical room and the details of the HMI.
There’s a lot of corollaries there, and there’s a real need for that process to be iterative. It’s got to involve the people that are going to be using the HMI and so forth. I found your process fascinating and quite elegant. I’m curious how long it took you to come up with that.
Brad: The basics of the iterative design, I was introduced to as a young student. That was part of being an architect was understanding and being able to lead and facilitate an iterative process. I firmly believed in it. I was devoted to it before I’d ever heard anything about human factors, because I had seen the benefits of it.
At the end of the day, we’re all trying to bring value to our clients, and I could see that there was a good opportunity for our clients to get more bang for the buck in their facilities. To answer your question, I was introduced to it early in my training.
As human factors was coming onto the scene the last 20 years and gaining momentum, it fit quite nicely into my philosophy of how to design a building. A lot of it was natural to me, but there’s certainly been a lot of experts and human factors in the last 20 or 30 years that have been forerunners.
We just embraced it. We wanted to be part of that.
Russel: It’s interesting, too, because your process is iterative but it does have gates. You iterate. You go through a gate. You iterate. You go through another gate. You iterate. You go through another gate because you’ve got to keep the process moving forward.
There’s always the tension of we can only iterate so much or spend so much time because we’ve got to limit…We’ve got a fixed budget to get to a certain set of deliverables, though. The structure helps.
Brad: Sometimes it’s a matter of helping our clients understand what an iterative process is. Many of them are engineers and trained in a linear way of thinking. Usually, they grasp it pretty quickly.
I coach my people that our job is to facilitate, but also to lead. We’re not just regurgitating, “What do you want?” and feeding that back. We have a path in mind that we’re trying to take to get to a floor plan or a space or a design that we’re working on.
Russel: I would say you have a certain set of questions that you require the customer to engage with. You have, “These are typical answers. Here’s why these different answers apply.” You’ve got to discern how to navigate your way through that.
It’s distinct from telling them what they need, right? Knowing these are the questions you’ve got to ask and these are typical ranges of answers, but you’ve got to figure out what makes sense for you.
Brad: That’s right. That’s right. We’re not dictating solutions. We’re not doing that.
Russel: Leading the thinking and leading the conversation. I will say that your team is good at that, for sure, at least in my limited experience.
Brad: Thanks. I don’t want to get too far afield here, but the exciting part is that when you do this process correctly, the design takes on a life of its own. It becomes a living entity that you’re creating.
When you got it, it’s like, “This is the solution. This is the plan.” Everybody gets it and then it builds consensus, theoretically….
Russel: What happens when people miss the 24/7 control room human factors component of this architectural design, but what is the outcome of that, because all architects are going to do similar processes around figuring out rooms and all that sort of thing, but there’s a certain elegance around 24/7 continual operations. What happens when that’s missed in the process?
Brad: Over my career, I’ve seen a lot of situations where it was missed. Sometimes, we get brought in to fix things after the fact, but the bottom line for that is that when the opportunity is missed, it leads to potential of human error, more potential for human error of the operator working in the control room.
What does that mean? Human factors looks at the control room in a number of different scenarios. There are 3 basic scenarios. Again, this is for any industry.
There’s going to be a startup and shutdown. There’s going to be a steady state or normal operations. There’s going to be a situation that we call abnormal. Abnormal is when we want to have human intervention to bring the automation back to steady state operation.
The human plays a really important part of this because of the intervention aspect, but if the human has distractions, if the human is fatigued, if the human is overwhelmed with too much information, there’s a tendency and a pattern to not be able to respond to that abnormal situation and bring the facility back to normal.
In the pipeline, it could lead to not maximizing the throughput on one scale, which is affecting the bottom line, or it can lead to a catastrophic situation, pipeline breach, or refinery explosion, or mining issue. There’s a full spectrum.
Russel: Anytime you read an incident report, there’s always human factors that are contributing components to that issue. What I would say, I’ve been in so many control rooms, I’m sure you have, too, but you get to a point where you can walk into the control room, and within five minutes, you know if it’s well designed or not, because you can actually feel the energy in the room.
A bad design, the energy may be depressed or energy sucking, like a fatiguing feeling. It could be a feeling around there’s too much activity and it leads to a level of needless anxiety. When it’s done really well, you walk into the room, and there’s a calm business-like but friendly chatter going on.
The other thing about this that I would say is that when you have normal operations, you need to be focused on what you’re doing without distraction, so you can keep the train on the tracks. When you have abnormal operations, you need to effectively and quickly collaborate.
That’s the artfulness and doing the design well is figuring out how to make both those things work because every operation is different when it comes to what needs to happen when something abnormal is going on.
Brad: We call it “getting it right”, so that when you walk in that control room, whether you’re a visitor or high level management or you’re working in that control room, that it feels right. That’s an art.
Another part of this is that we have to be very careful about the image of the control room. We don’t want it to look gold plated. We don’t want it to look the opposite of that.
We’ve got to understand the thinking of management and their vision and the culture of the company, so that it looks appropriate in that environment. That was a lesson that I learned early on. You got to get all of the things right. You’ve got to make it the right image as well.
Russel: We’ve talked about the iterative process. What are some of the other things that are necessary to do this well? Didn’t talk into pipeline operators that might not know about architecture, those processes, what you guys do. What’s really required to do it well?
Brad: At the beginning, there’s quite often an educational process, because we’ve got to get pipeline operators or the end users to understand the process and the benefit of the process.
Sometimes, I seem to do it well or there’s a receptive audience. Sometimes, it’s more of a challenge to help them understand this iterative process and the time it takes to engage the end user.
That’s where I’ve got to do my job well is to lead through the complexities of the team that we’re working with, and the politics of the team that we’re working with to get us to the solution. When I say a solution, I’m talking about a floor plan.
We’re trying to get to a floor plan, because then we can talk about how much it costs, and how long it’s going to take to build it, and that sort of thing. I’ve got to educate as well.
Russel: I would assume, too, there’s a lot of expectation management that’s occurring as well.
Russel: The other thing about control rooms is people tend to take them very personally, even if they’re not working in them.
Brad: It’s like a custom home.
Russel: Right. It’s the heartbeat. It’s the brain center of the entire company operation when it’s done right. What’s the ultimate benefit? Getting this right, what’s the ultimate benefit?
Brad: In a nutshell, it results in an operation that is safe, it’s productive, and reliable. When we get past those points, there’s the side benefit of a properly designed control room that can keep operators on the job.
Companies are spending tremendous investments in training these operators, the specialists. Retention, I would think, would be a very important part of the business strategy to keep those people.
Russel: I know of people who have left jobs to go to another job for less money to get into a better control room environment.
Brad: That’s a tough life that those folks are living. They aren’t working normal hours that we all tend to work. Their shifts are contrary to the way our bodies are designed to work and live. It’s a very challenging job. Putting them in an environment where they feel… I hate to use the word comfortable sometimes. That can be sounding too frilly.
Russel: It’s relaxed confidence.
Brad: Being fit for purpose. We don’t do anything just to make things nice. We’re doing them to help the operator do his or her job more effectively and safely.
Russel: I call it a relaxed confidence.
Brad: There you go.
Russel: It’s not like I’m bearing down real hard. It’s not like I’m comfortable, necessarily, because being in a control room is not a comfortable thing.
It might look comfortable, but for those that are actually carrying the responsibility of operations, it’s not. It’s a relaxed confidence. You know you’ve got it right when you walk in and you can feel the confidence, but you don’t feel any anxiety, you don’t feel any fatigue.
You’re getting where you need to be. The other thing, you know you’ve got it right when the experience of being in the control room communicates the company’s brand, their culture, their way of being and…
Brad: That– brand. That’s the perfect word, Russel.
Russel: I could think of some control rooms that I’ve been in, some big ones where I went into and I wasn’t that impressed.
I’ve been in small ones where I was very impressed, and then I’ve been in some big ones where I looked at it and I’m like, “Man, these guys really spent some time, some energy, some effort, and you can tell that people like working there.” They feel supported and equipped to do their jobs well.
What should we leave pipeline operators with as we’re wrapping this conversation up? What would we want pipeline operators to take away from this conversation?
Brad: A couple of things. The pipeline industry is very regulated. It is probably the most regulated of the industries that I have worked in. You’ve got to be aware of those regulations or you’ve got to bring people in who are aware of those regulations and those guidelines, including, but not limited to, PHMSA and ISO 11064.
The goal is to minimize human error. In the project that we’re working on together, Russel, they’re asking us, “We know what the guidelines are now, but where do you think the guidelines are going in the future?
“How can we anticipate the regulatory requirements that are coming two years from now, five years from now?” That’s a fascinating question to ask for a client. I’ve been thinking about that a lot since we’ve been working with you on this project.
Here’s where I think it’s going. When you think about the history of control centers, they’ve transformed because of automation. There’s so much automation involved in the process. The human being has got to get involved, has got to collaborate with other human beings and get involved in the process.
We’re dealing with the man-machine interface. The man component of that is pretty constant. We’re all about the same. We’re not becoming another kind of being. We’re human beings. We have certain intellectual capacity, physical capacity.
The machine part of that is changing. I was involved in a consortium about 20 years ago, and I hope I’m not getting off the path here too much, but again, I find this fascinating. We were asked by our clients what the future of the control room looked like. This was in the oil and gas refining sector.
A lot of brainstorming. We came up with a concept. Again, it’s a we. I was working with a number of specialists that got called the “Lights Out Control Room”, where, essentially, the human being was going to be phased out. Everything was going to be automated.
The conclusion that we came to 20 years ago was that that isn’t realistic. We’ve got to have the human involved. Things have changed in the last 20 years. A lot of people are talking in the news and in the world today about artificial intelligence and where that’s going.
I think that’s going to have an influence on manufacturing as time goes on. Here’s what I’m leading up to. I think as there will be more automation, there will continue to be more regulation. That’s the key.
This is going to become more and more regulated as time goes on, and that’s going to affect businesses as we’re going into the next decade or so. To answer your question in a broad sense, in a multi layered sense, we’ve got to get a handle on the regulations. We’ve got to think about that, know what they are, know where they’re heading.
Russel: I think I agree with you, but I’m going to do a yeah, but, if I may.
Brad: Yeah, go on.
Russel: My experience is pretty much limited to pipelines, so it might be different in other industry niches.
I’ve been working on a couple of projects where people are looking at the control room of the future. They’re trying to think, “Well, what is our control room going to need to be in 5 to 10 years given what’s going on with technology?” Particularly focusing on analytics and how those tools are going to support decision making.
My take is that historically, control rooms have been “Keep the product in the pipe. Deliver on time on spec.” That’s been their job. I think their job is going to evolve and it’s going to become more about that and maximize the lifetime value of the asset.
There’s a lot of things going on with technology that are going to enable that. Some of them are fairly immature yet, particularly as they relate to the control room, but they’re evolving quite quickly. Artificial intelligence is one of those things, but there’s others.
I think what’s going to happen is the role of the control room is going to shift. That’s one thing. It’s going to shift from not just operating, but operate and maximize the value of the asset. That has to do with how many pressure cycles do I put on it? How do I put those pressure cycles on it? Those kinds of things that have to do with wearing out the equipment.
That’s one thing. The other thing I think’s going to happen, I think you’re right about there will be increasing regulation, but more to the point, we’re going to see more happen around safety management programs and quality management programs where the compliance part’s going to be a prerequisite, but the science around the safety is going to happen faster.
I think what you’re going to see is it’s not going to be as regulatory driven as it’s going to be safety management program driven and standards driven.
Russel: That’s my take. We both are seeing the same headwinds, if you will, but maybe seeing it slightly differently.
Of course, we could both be wrong.
Brad: I hope that we can continue this discussion, Russel.
Russel: Ditto. I’ve very much enjoyed it. This has been fun for me. I really appreciate you taking the time to come on, Brad. We definitely need to get you back. As my listeners know, I do love getting into the nitty gritty details of how it happens.
We’ll have some conversation and maybe we can take a bigger bite.
Russel: Thank you so much.
Brad: Thank you. Russel.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of The Pipeliner’s Podcast and our conversation with Brad.
Just a reminder before you go, you should register to win our customized Pipeliner’s Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit PipelinePodcastNetwork.com/Win and enter yourself in the drawing.
If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, please let me know on the Contact Us page at PipelinePodcastNetwork.com, or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.
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