Addressing the human element in automation through alarm management

For decades, manufacturing processes have been the target of increasing efficiency and automation, saving time, money, and energy. However, there is one aspect of the manufacturing process that automation has not been able to address – the human element. One example of this is in manufacturing alarm response.

[E]xperts throughout the industry ecosystem are still scratching their heads about how to get through to the plants that just aren’t managing their alarms effectively. Folks at Honeywell Process Solutions (HPS) are so confounded they thought it might be a good idea to gather a few industry journalists recently for a video chat, to find out what we’ve heard in our travels; what people are telling us about why they’re not following through with alarm management tasks.

As Kevin Brown, global best practice lead for HPS, noted, there are some $10 billion in losses caused by alarm management issues every year, according to the ASM Consortium. Plants are hit with as many as 4,000 alarms a day. And in a three-phase approach to alarm management, operations “get success, have results, but long term, we’re not seeing it,” he said.

The problem comes in as the practice of alarm management. While there are plans that can, and are, put in place, they aren’t being followed.

Brown is concerned that manufacturers aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. “They’re looking for a silver bullet,” he said. They want to put alarm plans in place and then never have to think about them again. And he agrees with comments that they’re concerned about “the cost of people they have to get involved in rationalization.”

As a case in point, Brown mentioned one HPS customer that was experiencing some 350 alarms per operator each day. They got the total down to 10-11 alarms per hour, and then 4.5 alarms. “But they were back up to 28 alarms an hour in five months,” he said. It’s as if they completed their alarm management program, “and then they put it on the shelf.

One problem with alarm management is the cost, in both time and money. It is easy to skip a five to ten minute meeting to discuss an alarm and how to fix the problem. It gets an employee to their next task more quickly. The problem is that time and money are also lost when an alarm goes off and the alarm isn’t managed. This is an annoyance for Honeywell Process Solutions, which has been working on this very problem.

Although Honeywell could keep selling the same services over and over again to manufacturers that fail to follow up on alarm management the first time around, that’s certainly less than ideal. “I don’t want to be, 10 years down the road, having the same conversations,” Brown said. “But some of the biggest companies out there are still not taking that next step.”

Hopefully, if alarm management becomes more advanced and the benefits are more well-defined, the human element can begin to be brought in line with the overall goal of automation.

Read more about the human element in automation over at Automation World.

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