Executing Alarm Management

For you to succeed in advancing your strategy, while keeping the peace, you must meet many challenges — motivating personnel and juggling the integration of changes. The solution is better plant-wide communication and understanding of the alarm philosophy.

By Roy Tanner, and Rob Turner ABB and Jeff Gould, Matrikon

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Some of the latest automation systems use software platforms based on standards truly built for interconnectivity of applications and which take the management and communication of alarms fully into account. When these other applications are built to similar standards, such as ActiveX, OPC, HTML, XML, COM, Web interfaces, and others, the result is a better solution maintainable without being dependent on specific resources.

With this type of platform and use of standards, what needs seamless integration in order to streamline operations?

Benchmarking/analysis tools: The third-party software that was to collect and analyze alarm and event data is already collecting data automatically, but the pre-canned analysis reports were only available to the engineer on a separate computer. These reports should be readily available to the operations supervisor, maintenance technicians, and operators. If available with a mouse click, the right user can get access to the right report. Today’s alarm analysis tools typically have Web-based access for standard reports such as frequent, duplicate, standing, and chattering alarms as well as more general, performance-statistic-based reports to give the overall picture. The result is where an operations supervisor has access to alarm performance statistics or an operator can verify that a certain tag has nuisance alarms without disrupting normal work routine. Barriers such as special procedures, dedicated PC access, training, different passwords, forms, are non-existent.

Asset optimization: Traditional asset management packages usually dealt with smart assets. Smart assets, such as HART, FF, or Profibus transmitters, have status information that aid more efficient preventative and predictive maintenance strategies. Today, asset optimization is reaching beyond traditional asset management tools by monitoring devices that are simple network management protocol (SNMP) capable for computer and networking equipment status. Other assets are vibration detection sensors, analyzers, electrical devices such as drives and motor controllers, plant equipment such as heat exchangers, plant entities such as reactors, and even user defined data such as key performance indicators (KPIs).

By monitoring KPI information, the right people can be aware of status information that means more to the business objectives and notifies people in various ways that action is necessary. The use of alarm-management performance statistics that yield information such as standing alarms, alarms per time period, and benchmarked information (such as whether areas of the plant are being operated in a reactive, stable or predictive mode) can preemptively warn supervisors of possible problems. If caught early, you can avoid these usually hidden problems and improve performance, reduce equipment wear and tear, and even prevent accidents.

Notification tools: While asset optimization tools are great at monitoring and reporting issues, if no one ever looks at them, is there a problem that needs fixing? You must have a notification methodology to alert the right people of issues that may arise from alarm management performance indicators and other monitored assets. One way is to have alerts come up to an operator screen, but this requires careful handling, otherwise they, too, become nuisance alarms. In some cases, notification can take place in a non-intrusive way that doesn’t divert the operators’ attention away from their responsible process area(s). Other means of notification are via e-mail, text messaging and paging. Short message service (SMS) capabilities are automatically available in automation systems so when the number of standing alarms crosses a pre-defined limit or benchmark, the operations supervisor receives a page and concurrently the area engineer and plant manager get e-mails. While current supervisors, engineers, and managers are cringing at the idea of receiving yet another e-mail, it is likely their peers now facing criminal charges of negligence for not being aware of plant conditions during life taking/environment damaging incidents would welcome such an inconvenience.

Computerized maintenance management systems: When integrating systems that result in the notification of potential problems, it makes sense to streamline the back end. In some cases, filling out a paperwork ticket to fix these problems may be as intrusive as nuisance alarms. Many facilities use a computerized maintenance management system for tracking field assets such as transmitters, motors, pumps and valves. Process automation alarm-management configuration should not be an exception. If nuisance alarms or alarm statistics sound off, the front line of defense, your operators or operations supervisors, should be able to create a work order immediately, saving time and increasing the speed of resolution.

Alarm rationalization data, operating procedures: During the alarm-management-strategy execution, process-control tag data were collected and archived to improve the integrity of plant alarms. These data included tag descriptions, locations, tuning parameters, alarm configuration parameters, the alarm’s probable cause, effect, and recommended action information. These data could be a valuable resource to operations during critical conditions; they should be operator assistance information and should be immediately available. In addition, links to current, up-to-date procedures can also help in the decision-making process. Most incident reports indicate operations personnel didn’t know how to react to certain plant conditions or lacked access to proper procedure documentation.

Change management: During the alarm rationalization steps taken, the database contains key parameter information. In some cases, this database has features and reporting that enable it to work for change management purposes. For example, using these data to compare against current automation-system settings could provide a difference report that indicates that values have changed. Audit trails and reports from both the change management database/system and the automation system can really speed up decision making as to what values are set incorrectly, who set them, and why. This information, if accurate, and quickly available, can help avert costly mistakes and incidents — reducing risk to personnel and saving millions of dollars in damage and lost production.

While it is hard enough to execute continuous plant improvement strategies such as alarm management, it’s even harder to sustain them. Various plant personnel and plant systems must mesh and integrate to streamline the necessary activities required to continue the effort. It‘s easy to pound in a nail if you have a hammer and the same holds true with accomplishing your integration goals. Some automation systems utilize platforms based on standard technologies that can help ease the integration effort to provide the best in class, maintainable solutions. The end user must make sure their automation system investments, whether new, replacements, or upgrades, provide the necessary infrastructure that reaches beyond the traditional control system. This is paramount when considering continuous improvement programs that involve the entire plant. A solid technical foundation, combined with clear communication with your plant team, will ensure your program's ongoing success.
Roy Tanner is a marketing manager for ABB in Wickliffe, Ohio. E-mail him at roy.tanner@us.abb.com.
Rob Turner is a senior consultant for ABB Engineering Services in the UK. Email him at rob.turner@gb.abb.com.
Jeff Gould is a vice president at Matrikon in Edmonton, Alberta Canada. Email him at jeff.gould@matrikon.com.

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