One glance at international headlines on any given day and you’ll, no doubt, be delivered a dose of disturbing news within the manufacturing industry. A fire in a refinery, a chemical spill, an evacuation after a gas leak, workers injured or killed. In manufacturing, especially in chemical, oil & gas and energy-based process industries, the smallest abnormal situation can trigger a string of events that can ultimately lead to disaster if not contained.
In the discrete arena the danger is not as explosive, but hiding under the hood of an automotive recall is a potential component failure that could cause a serious accident—an issue that automakers are dealing with currently.
As a result, the manufacturing industry as a whole is on a safety-driven mission.
During a recent conversation with an instrumentation and controls manager at an energy company, the question was asked: “Will we ever see a day when there are no explosions in the plant?” The goal, of course, he said, is to reach zero incidents. And work is being done to ensure quality and safety are engineered into production. But there are some uncontrollable aspects of any process. People.
The conversation shifted to the airline industry, as an example. It is a regulated industry, but progress is driven by the need for safety with a focus on product quality in an effort to curtail the amount of plane crashes. Over the years, by increasing aircraft reliability, there have been fewer accidents than just a few years ago. In 2009, there were 23 commercial airline incidents compared to 12 in 2013.
A step in the right direction. But back to the question: “Will we ever see a day when there are no explosions in the plant? Or faulty ignitions in cars? Or plane crashes?”
Unfortunately, there really is no guaranteed answer because what’s left is the reliability of the people behind the process—be it an airline pilot, a control system operator, or a mechanic in the field.
Now, we need to find ways to help people make the best decisions in the moment. It starts, ironically, by enlisting the help of the people on the front line (the pilots, the control system operator, the mechanic). Too often, an engineer is sitting in the backroom creating plant floor programs that are perfect from a process perspective, but are not practical when it comes to real-world situations.
New innovations in HMI (human machine interface) are underway, using simple graphics and carefully placed colors to provide pattern recognition to control operators. But in order to portray accurate information, it must be first created within the process.
So gather everyone—not just the engineers—and huddle around the business process management (BPM) models to identify what is the most important information to be acknowledge in the event of an abnormal situation, as well as how and to whom it should be delivered. The point is to streamline the right information to the right person. Not overwhelm individuals with innocuous alarms.
People, when armed with the right information, will make the right decisions. But we need to use technology strategically to create a synergistic balance between machine and man. When that happens, we will be that much closer to zero incidents in any manufacturing environment.