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Automation's Impact on Operator Performance


The general rule in human factors for increasing automation is that normal performance can be improved at the expense of performance when the automation malfunctions. A group of researchers reviewed the results of 18 different studies to try to better understand the implications (Onnasch, L., Wickens, C.D.,Li, H., and Manzey, D., Human Performance Consequences of Stages and Levels of Automation: An Integrated Meta-Analysis, Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, May 2014, 56: 476-488.). From their analysis, they developed a general model of the impact of increasing automation on human performance. (Note: They use the acronym DOA for degree of automation, which, depending upon your view point, may have positive or negative connotations). The basic model (shown below) has two performance and two secondary variables impacted by automation:

Performance Variables

  • Normal operation
  • Responding to automation failure

Secondary Variables

  • Workload
  • Situation awareness

Increasing automation results in increasing benefits for normal operation and workload, BUT results in decreasing situation awareness and ability to respond upon loss of automation. Since performance on automation failure is non-linear, the degree of automation should be at the inflection point. Where is that point? The authors suggest that that point is when automation that aids information acquisition/analysis changes to automation for action selection. When operators actively select actions, they have better situation awareness and are, therefore, better able to manually control the process if automation fails.

Degree of Automation Graphic

So where is that point in a process plant? We donít know yet. But finding it may be very important as procedure automation increases in use.

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