Shifting the Paradigm: From Control Rooms to Control Centres

Sixty years ago control rooms did not exist. In manufacturing industries workers and supervisors together spent all their work time out on the shop floor. Forty years ago, in the 1960s, separate control rooms didn’t really exist in the sense we understand this concept today. In the noisy industrial workplaces of the day, operators and main­tenance workers worked for short periods from a purpose-built cabin. These cabins were stand-alone additions to the industrial shop floor. Often constructed of wood or metal, these cabins allowed the maintenance crews to store their equipment. The main purpose of the cabins was to protect the crews from noise and air pollutions of the surrounding work environment.

Constructing separate work cabins for workers with specialised duties satisfied the very important objectives of protection from the noisy environment. This was especially so in the Scandinavian countries. Here, legislation existed to protect the health and safety of industrial workers, building on long-standing traditions of trust and cooperation between workers and employers. In this environment, acceptance of such legislation was ensured as its intent was mutually understood. However, one disadvantage was that by working in the cabins, the workers or operators became distanced from the ‘shop floor’ and the machinery and processes they were sup­posed to supervise and maintain. Contemporary research showed that there were differences in behaviour between old and young workers: older workers spent much more time out on the shop floor than their younger workmates (Ivergard, Istance, and Gunther, 1980).

Twenty years later, in the 1980s, we began to see special control rooms where operators could supervise, and to some extent control, industrial processes. Early examples were electrical power production and distribution. Inside the control room the process flows were represented in visual displays. When process flows reached a critical stage (for example, when pressures became extreme or a risky situation was imminent), the control panel alerted the operator by emitting visual or auditory warnings such as flashing lights and/or sounds. At about this same time, control centres in the pulp and paper industries also came along on a large scale. In most, if not all, of these uses, the main driving force was to improve process control and reli­ability and to avoid total breakdown of the process. In industry, restarts are time con­suming and very costly. In countries where electrical supply is inconsistent, power outages are obviously extremely costly and disruptive.