The Human-Machine Interface is a Prerequisite for Modern Hydropower Technology

Autor: Roland Gruber , 27.09.2021

Nowadays, hydropower plant operators generally communicate with their station infrastructure thanks to visualisation systems. Operators observe all the key parameters via a user interface that...

... also facilitates the execution of remote commands. The user-­friendliness is relative: it is more a question of developing and implementing the optimal visualisation system for the respective requirements of the operator. Troyer AG is a hydropower specialist from South Tyrol with many years of experience and expertise in this field, providing customers with visualisation systems and remote-control systems with personalized software. In order to find out what is particularly important at Troyer, we asked Dipl.-Ing. Philipp March, Head of the Automation Department.

Visualisation and remote-control systems are developed to ensure all data and processes can be recorded and controlled. Over the past decades these systems have greatly simplified the task of operating a plant, increased the ease and convenience of operation, and enhanced the safety and reliability of such power stations. A visualisation system is the interface between the plant operator and the plant itself, providing the operator with a real-time ‘experience’ of his/her power station. Nevertheless, Philipp March reiterates the fact that there is not a generally accepted norm regarding what is considered an optimally and intuitively designed inter­face: “In my opinion there is no universal answer to the question of whether a visualisation system is intuitive and user-friendly, ­since requirements can vary so immensely. Visualisation that works for commercial electricity providers, and is seen as intuitive and user-friendly by trained and specialised staff, may still confuse the average consumer. Conversely, simple, pared-down visualisation system may provide an experienced operator with too few functional options and be too limited. This circumstance makes it impossible to design a visualisation system that facilitates an optimum solution for every plant and customer.” March points out that, in his experience, this is precisely the aspect of plant automation and process visualisation that requires the greatest amount of discussion with the customer. Requirements here are mostly dominated by operational goals and standardisation measures, so obviously implementation must be guaranteed in line with customer demands.

Uniform ‘look-and-feel’
This is where Troyer's expertise in visualization systems comes in: Troyer is a water-to-wire specialist. In other words, the company is a full-service, single-source supplier, providing turbines and visualisation systems, the accompanying control software, switch cabinets and control panels. It’s how the company ensures compatibility across all components to cut out the risks of interface problems. “One goal we set for the development of our visualisation systems was the creation of a ­seamless concept for graphics and operation, regardless of the other hardware and project software in use. This has enabled us to achieve an uniform ‘look-and-feel’ without the deviations caused by varying plant hardware. Another goal was to allow for a broad range of functions and operations. For this reason, we chose a modular approach, making each module available in a ‘light’ and a ‘full’ version, encompassing differences in the scope of functionality and the degree of influence open to the operator. Depending on the specifics of each facility, and on the preferences expressed by customers, the modules are put together to achieve the best possible result in each case”, added March.

Proven library of modules
This modularity has since become the basis for the high degree of flexibility on offer in response to the wishes of customers. Solutions can be scaled according to the functionality and complexity required by the plant. March explains: “Basically we are able to fall back on a well-tried and tested library of modules. The customer receives a reliable and trusted solution at a competitive price. Obviously, the development phase never ends. We integrate new ideas, implement suggested enhancements, improve various details and introduce new versions onto the market on a regular basis. The goal is to ensure a seamless, ongoing updating process without a break with the past.” Alongside this modularity, solution developments can also be completely tailored to customer requirements.
From the basic to the premium packages, Troyer provides a whole range of solutions – from very simple to sophisticated premium options. One essential point of distinction between the top-level versions and the more basic solutions lies in the capacity to archive immense volumes of data. High-end solutions offer a wide range of depictions as diagrams, graphs or tables which can be exported, made available and utilised for on-going analysis and evaluation in suitable environments. PC-based solutions, as with ones devised for the ‘Premium Package’, allow to control the PC remotely by internet link-ups and via relevant software. Today, on top of the PC-based solution, there is often the additional need to deliver a back-up system, as can be the case when an extra operating station is required for the water conservation zone. Touch panels, like those used with the ‘Basic’ and ‘Comfort’ variants, are also suited to this purpose, but only have a very limited capacity for data storage. Similarly, not every model can provide remote-control functionality. March emphasizes the fact that: “Obviously, for the ‘Premium’ version, on top of the PCs touch panels can be installed, too.” Previously, instead of touch panels, industrial versions of tablet PCs with docking stations were integrated into control cabinet doors. Now, WLAN internet connectivity provides greater degree of freedom of movement. The ‘WebApp’ is another completely independent back-up solution, since it runs on a dedicated, independent online server. Naturally, the ‘WebApp’ is a fully mobile solution that does not rely on a single location or on actual hardware.

Broad portfolio of available hardware
Asked about the graphics options available for remote end devices, Troyer AG’s automation specialist replied: “There are numerous possibilities! The wide range of hardware solutions includes a conventional SCADA-PC workstation option, and panel, box or rack PCs. If required, customers can be provided with redundant infrastructure, server-client architecture – and a variety of touch panels that can also be delivered as mobile solutions (mobile panels and WLAN). Although there are many and varied project planning tools, to a large extent we have managed to implement the same graphics and operating layouts.” Philipp March continues by responding to the growth in popularity of web/HTML-based solutions. “Our WebApp uses a dedicated embedded PC that assumes the role of a web server. Users can operate every kind of web browser-enabled hardware – once again with the built-in benefits of our proprietary ‘look-and-feel’.” Troyer’s ‘WebApp’ offers complete hardware independence, so the user enjoys the benefit of the same level of operational convenience on all end devices, be it a smartphone, laptop or a tablet. There would be a significant difference in system efficacy only if it was just the plant’s SCADA PC being driven remotely via the smartphone. March clarifies thus: “In such cases the icons and elements on the screen would be far too small, and the convenience aspect could no longer be claimed for this operating mode. However, when our WebApp is in use, the layout display adapts to the resolution and orientation offered by the screen of the device for a markedly enhanced result.”

Familiar control layout for users
March is convinced of the great importance of contemporary design. However, he believes the main priorities lie elsewhere: “We place great emphasis on the seamless recognisability of our operating graphics. Adherence to a standardised Troyer ‘look-and-feel’ guarantees fundamental layout similarities across the systems delivered. Operators can work with a familiar, hardware-independent operating arrangement.” Ultimately, Troyer integrates the 3D construction drafts of turbine systems and water collection facilities into the overall process visualisation. This enables display and operating elements to be positioned exactly where the active machinery and devices are located, in turn making system operation significantly more intuitive.
Troyer offers a rich array of ‘optionals’ for customers requiring system individualisation and future expansions, such as the integration of surveillance images of the water collection facility, language functions in many languag­es, including German, Italian, Spanish and – of course – English, the latest meter-reading software: ‘SAX R+C’, alarm options and remote-control functionality, and expanded    redundancy capacities that increase system availability. Moreover, one major asset of Troyer’s system is its capacity to archive all operational data and readings in high temporal definition. This assures the customer the availability of a complete data archive, in turn enabling developments in results and readings to be observed seamlessly over long periods. Should revitalisation or optimisation activities be planned, the collected data forms the basis for determining the precise degree of optimisation potential.

Enhancing operational safety and reliability
Modern visualisation systems like those produced by Troyer are a key precondition for improvements in power availability and plant safety, as Philipp March confirms: “Yes, they most definitely contribute to the safety and reliability of operations. The clearer the overview and the more intuitive the control interface, the easier it is to avoid operating errors. Clear and logical arrangements of control elements improve operating convenience and enhance safety. A good example is the single-line switch diagram for a transformer station or an electrical sub-station. By placing switches on the respective elements along the line it is almost impossible to confuse switches.” Nowadays, when several people want to oper­ate a power plant on site or remotely, these requirements mean close attention must be paid to safety and security aspects by the company’s automation specialists. The issues address the questions such as: Who has the ultimate, overriding right to control a plant? How best can user access be managed? Who should receive which type of permit? …and for what? An important issue, indeed! “These aspects have grown in significance over time, since plants are increasingly being controlled off-site. This can involve parallel access via different channels. Nevertheless, the prioritisation and ranking can be guaranteed if enough planning goes into the projects”, states Philipp March. Whichever visualisation system plant oper­ators select, today’s operators and plants can no longer work completely without some form of visual interface. The positive market reaction to Troyer’s sophisticated visualisation system highlights the fact that the South Tyrolean hydropower specialists are doing great work in this field.
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The Troyer WebApp transforms an everyday smartphone into a user-friendly control tool with clearly-structured graphics.

graphics: Troyer

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Today, the latest visualisation systems give users the benefits of customised and optimised communication with their power plants. Troyer AG works unceasingly on the on-going development of central interfaces between operators and power plants. 

photo credits: Troyer

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Troyer aims to guarantee a uniform ‘look-and-feel’ for the user interface, regardless of whether the user is working from a tablet, a mobile phone, or – as in this case – via a touch panel.

photo credits: Troyer

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Sophisticated visualisation systems are an important prerequisite for the improvement of plant availability and safety.

 photo credits: Troyer

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All operative data can be stored in an archive.

photo credits: Troyer

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Subsequently, all data gathered can provide the basis for future optimisation.

photo credits: Troyer