Friday, July 31, 2015

What caused the increase in alarm notifications?

A guest blog post by Rob Kambach 

Alarm sub-systems serve a crucial function in the daily operation of a production or management process. In a normal mode of operation, these systems provide operators a snapshot of the current health of the equipment and overall process performance. However, if alarms are not carefully monitored, a crucial event could be missed with potentially damaging consequences. These damages might be felt environmentally and economically, adversely affect equipment, and potentially endanger lives.

An example of an environmental management process concern is the unintended release of hazardous material into the environment which harms the ecosystem or plant surroundings. These unmitigated incidents can cause un-planned shutdowns, production loss, and costly damages to equipment. Additionally, operations outside normal or safe boundaries can create health and safety hazards, and risk lives. In summary, the consequences of unaddressed alarm notifications can be severe.

Often alarm notifications are ignored by operators, because they occur too frequently. In many cases a faulty design, rather than an unstable process, is the root cause of untrustworthy and nuisance alarm notifications. The presence of large amounts of noise in the system leads to a lack of operator trust in that system, resulting in genuine abnormal situations being ignored or obscured by that noise.

Over the next several blog posts, we plan to examine  methods of effective alarm management, with the intent of informing the reader of ways to improve operations through a well-planned system design and execution of that design.

But first, let’s take a look what caused the increase in alarm notifications?

Ongoing developments continue for automated control systems, and the evolution from relay boards to Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs), to smart devices has dramatically increased the number of configured alarms and their representation in a system. Consequently, typical control systems now have thousands of configured alarms for each operator to manage.

During the evolution of control systems technologies, the automation industry began implementing concepts which expanded in scope to become what is now called the “Internet of Things.” An aspect of this scenario is prevalent in the manufacturing world; nearly every device added to a plant in the past decade is “smart,” with smart drives, smart transmitters, and smart controllers in place.

From a business perspective, going from “analog” to “smart” makes a lot of sense, since for a relatively small investment things like smart drives can save up to 50 percent in energy cost. With that, additional data can be made available to the Process Visualization: Current, Torque, Speed, Interlocks, Energy, Deviation, Frequency, Supply Voltage, Trip Alarms, Communication Status, and Diagnostics.

But while this “Smartness” is good, it leads to increased volume of data from devices. Bringing more information to the attention of the operator is not inherently bad, but a significant portion of this matter is considered “auxiliary information” rather than actionable alarm information.

Now it’s your turn to share your experience with Alarms? How does your organization handle it? 

Special thanks to Rob Kambach ( for this article.

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