The UK business world is in crisis. It might sound like an over-dramatic statement however, from a financial perspective, the threat level posed by economic uncertainty has undoubtedly reached critical. Never has there been a more important time for British industry to tighten its belt and manage company costs across every area of every business. The impact of Brexit-related economic instability is being felt far and wide and in process-driven industries such as manufacturing, food and beverage, oil and gas, utilities and energy, the focus is on maximising efficiency and minimising any interruptions in productivity.
For companies that rely on machinery, equipment and systems, one obvious area of scrutiny is ensuring they operate consistently and correctly. The financial fallout of malfunctions and unplanned downtime can have serious implications on the bottom line. Monitoring this mass of equipment around the clock is crucial. Collectively, the seamless performance of potentially hundreds of machines influences the overall commercial output of a business. Any failings, no matter how minor, will simply ramp up costs and halt productivity.
In these environments, alarm management systems (AMS) play a key role in notifying employees of equipment malfunctions, abnormal conditions or emergency events. The individual alarms provide a visible or audible notification to highlight problems with any component in the production process or a safety issue with personnel. It is not unusual for hundreds of minor alarms to be presented daily and monitoring them effectively poses a significant challenge. In the current financial climate, companies clearly have to recognise the importance of efficient alarm management and its bearing on protecting both their profits and their people.
The Identification Process
Across these industries, there are three common ways that alarms are identified. The most basic being the human response, relying on an employee recognising there is a problem and raising the alert. With such a rudimentary process there is always going to be a degree of risk involved due to the potential for human error. Another way of identifying alarms is through a traffic light system on a machine panel that signals an issue. Again, this method relies on a team member noticing the light and subsequently reporting the problem.
Alarms can also be monitored via a control room, where faults are presented as alarms on screens. In some industries, like chemical companies and oil and gas, it is not unusual to see thousands of alerts daily, and these have to be deciphered and prioritised by the operator. This may seem like an appropriate setup, however, the responsibility is left solely in the hands of the operator and if they are not monitoring the screens 24/7 or the right response isn’t taken amidst a high volume of alerts, the outcome could potentially be catastrophic.
Automation for System Efficiency
Semi-automation of an AMS can only fight half of the battle. When multiple alerts happen concurrently, the operator would have to deal with what’s deemed an ‘alarm flood’. In other words, they will be drowning in alarm notifications and unable to identify the most critical or respond successfully. When alarms are a fundamental part of an organisation’s operation and businesses need to keep a tight rein on costs, it doesn’t make financial sense to automate part of the process and leave the response in the hands a single team member.
What is needed is automation throughout the process so companies can take control and work smarter. Rather than a workforce manually monitoring all business assets individually, information could be fed through one solution. Whether it is machines and emergency systems, or employees and lone workers, an automated solution can monitor data from across different areas and locations. End to end automation has to take precedence in order to raise and respond to critical alarms with immediate action. A small investment could bring big benefits to financially-savvy businesses, by improving efficiency and resources and reducing costs associated with downtime and process failures.
The Right Response
Focusing on visibility by upscaling a control room will not solve the challenge of dealing with critical alarms. In such a busy environment, differentiating between a minor and critical alarm is difficult enough. And detection is just the first stage in the process. The operator then needs to decide on the appropriate action. It’s this response and resolution stage that is key.
Businesses also need to factor in various scenarios such as what happens out of hours or on unmanned sites. It is not uncommon for an incident to go unnoticed until the next morning or when someone attends a site – at which point the damage may already have been done. When the AMS is part of the general Building Management System (BMS), employees have to manually log in to the system to check the status. The BMS can send an email if there is a problem, yet again it is just another form of communication that can easily be missed.
ARCs and Manual Intervention
A number of businesses employ the services of Alarm Receiving Centres (ARC) to monitor alarms around the clock. While ARCs may provide reassurance to companies, there is still a manual element as the alarm will often be escalated back to the business to be managed and dealt with internally. Problems can also arise when there is a lack of specific knowledge about a site, so the central control team cannot react efficiently.
An automated system accelerates the response and resolution process, communicating critical alarms direct to the mobiles of the relevant team members. It’s hard to believe that many companies still rely on paper-based contact lists to identify the right responders. Going through the long-handed dialling approach is an obvious time-wasting process, with no guarantees that the person on the list will even pick up their phone. This process needs urgent modernisation. A direct, automated approach will eliminate time-lapses between an operator receiving and responding to an alert and reduce the risk of severity of a situation.
Automated tools are simple to deploy and can relieve the pressure on company resources. Operating in real-time and triggering immediate alerts directly to the relevant response teams will ensure a protected and productive workforce. Automation will also provide recipients with detailed information on the nature of the problem and a transparent audit trail that can help businesses to satisfy compliance regulations.
An Escalating Problem
There are numerous scenarios where inadequate alarm management and poor processes have resulted in companies failing to respond appropriately to emergencies. Aside from the worst case scenarios involving employee safety, the rate at which an incident spirals can have severe financial implications. Whether it is lost productivity, harm to the environment or damaged company reputations – it is a risk too far when there is so much pressure on budgets.
One example is a company that uses several fridges in its labs to store chocolate while testing its shelf-life for manufacturers. The aim is to keep the chocolate products fresher for longer and the test results are stored daily in the fridges. If a fridge fails, the loss of time and associated costs can be huge, anything from a day to a year’s worth of work could be lost. There have been many well-documented cases in the media where companies have literally paid the price for inadequate alarm management and poor processes. From Tesco to South West Water, renowned brands faced significant reputational and operational penalties for preventable environmental offences.
At a time when the nation’s businesses are crying out for some certainty and clarity in the economy, every organisation is looking at measures to maintain financial stability. In process-driven industries, simple steps can be put in place to protect workers and profits and prevent unnecessary losses. Full automation in alarm management may not be able to solve the country’s economic problems but for forward-thinking businesses, it means another crisis could be averted.
Klaus Allion is the Managing Director at ANT Telecom