Control Systems

What DCS can learn from the aerospace industry

The industry's next generation process automation platform is pushing back from the gate.

By John Rezabek, process control specialist, ISP Corp.

In the past five years, my plant manager has permitted me to take part in the ongoing rounds of operator interviews, as we've sought out individuals to replace senior operators leaving for retirement and new opportunities. In our area, the vast majority of the people we interview have no idea what it's like to work in a large process plant. How do you give candidates some insight into an operator's work life?

Our operations manager liked the metaphor of a passenger plane. Similar to a plant in steady state, an airline flight is best when it's smooth and uneventful. Operators and pilots allow automated controls to stay on track, and are relaxed enough to wander around or use the facilities. However, like startups and shutdowns of a process plant, you'll find the flight crew at the helm during the stressful and risky times of takeoff and landing. Major maintenance, repairs, additions and upgrades can only be completed on the ground, and the plane doesn't make any money when it's in the hangar. And, unplanned interruptions to a flight—like unplanned interruptions to a continuous process—are abhorred, and have consequential visibility to high levels of the enterprise, even as far as Wall Street.

The process industries probably have something to learn from the culture of aerospace, avionics and defense systems. The immediacy of the life-or-death consequences of small design choices, like tube fittings or terminal blocks, is much more compelling. Our choices as process control professionals can be just as consequential, but we can get away with more ignorance, sloppiness or laziness because our processes are largely unmanned, consequences evolve more slowly and—shamefully—no one trusts our instruments anyhow. When an aerospace engineer makes choices about what a pilot will see or experience, I'm guessing there may be a bit higher aesthetic as regards precision, timeliness, data validity and reliability. We're already learning and borrowing from the modern fighter cockpit's focus on "situational awareness" in the design of our HMIs.

To learn more, read “DCS future to be inspired by aerospace industry” from Control.

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