Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Features Factory Process Software
A real-time view: Optimizing operations with process management

Process management platforms streamline work processes and boost communication during shift handovers


Photo: eschbach

As the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has evolved over the past 20 years, the focus has been on interconnecting sensors and devices with industrial applications.

This allows for a high degree of automation and the ability to use cloud computing and artificial intelligence in the next-generation of process control. Thus, the shift to the IIoT has effectively expanded computer technology beyond the confines of IT to the shop floor and beyond.

However, this first wave of the IIoT has largely ignored the human element, an important factor in the execution of any industrial process, regardless of the degree of automation employed. Production teams can become more efficient due to the ability of IIoT networks to capture, exchange and analyze data instantly. But without access to IIoT infrastructure, these gains will be difficult to realize.

The next wave of IIoT must promote collaboration between people and machines, particularly for personnel directly involved in production, to best exploit its ability to respond quickly to changes in the operating condition of an industrial process.

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Production teams can become more efficient due to the ability of IIoT networks to capture, exchange and analyze data instantly. But without access to IIoT infrastructure, these gains will be difficult to realize.

The upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic underlines the need for seamless integration between human intelligence and machine data collected through legacy systems and IIoT. Production team members who need to work remotely need access via the public internet to assist on-site colleagues in solving process upsets.

For 24/7 production, each shift team relies on this information for rapid response to adverse operating conditions, making remote work more difficult if the access is not available for the night or weekend shifts. Therefore, as IIoT becomes more pervasive in production processes, this access will need to be open for everyone within a shift operation, not just technical specialists.

A real-time view of plant operations

Plant process management (PPM) is a system that gives manufacturers the ability to manage, monitor and optimize plant operations around work activities and production assets. A fully implemented PPM system provides a real-time view of work procedures and tasks, including recording and status of any incidents or outliers to normal plant operation.

With many plants running continuous operations on regular shift changes, it is imperative that the current shift is made aware of any issues that may have arisen during the previous shift. This means there is a critical need for communication at shift changes to alleviate any missed details at the handover. A lack of quality communication can have a direct impact on the ongoing safety of the workforce, as well as on plant efficiency and production quality.

The requirements met by PPM apply to any type of plant, regardless of the amount of IoT instrumentation, machine learning (ML) or predictive maintenance in place. Knowledge can be ingested and analyzed from any human contact point in a process.

As the pandemic has demonstrated, consistent capture of team-to-team communication has shifted to a “must-have” capability. Irregular work patterns are the new normal for individuals due to isolation and social distancing measures, which have put added pressure on safe operations.

Process management becomes priority

New research findings for process industry manufacturers show that IT and OT collaboration using a PPM solution has become an investment priority. The survey was conducted by 451 Research, part of S&P Global Market Intelligence on behalf of eschbach.

While OT and IT may have different perspectives and priorities in the journey to digital transformation, safety is cited as the top use case for shift data in both groups, followed closely by process optimization. A significant majority of survey respondents – 86 per cent – indicated that one or more safety incidents recorded in the past year were related to a lack of communication.

The next wave of IIoT must promote collaboration between people and machines, particularly for personnel directly involved in production, to best exploit its ability to respond quickly to changes in the operating condition of an industrial process.

When looking at shift management challenges, 36 per cent of IT respondents identified the inability to consume or share captured data is the greatest challenge they face in terms of shift management. On the OT side, 34 per cent of respondents stated that the inability to reconcile shift data with machine logs is their greatest challenge in terms of shift management.

The top-ranked priorities cited by IT/OT respondents for a PPM investment included capturing and sharing best practices for worker safety, broader collaboration and communication among production teams and managers, and gaining a platform to record real-time incidents for reporting and corrective action.

A case in point

Roche Pharma, a developer of cancer treatments, deployed a PPM solution just prior to the pandemic. They benefited greatly from the software’s ability to support their production teams as they re-adjusted their work practices, instituting remote monitoring and shift handovers.

“We have transitioned from multiple tools and applications to just the one solution, making communication much easier. This has allowed us to feel more confident and comfortable during this crisis,” says Mathias Gerchel, manufacturing technician at Roche Pharma.

Manufacturers like Roche Pharma who were already using a PPM approach were able to respond quickly after the lockdown. They transitioned more easily to the new normal by lowering shift-to-shift contamination and enabling employees to work remotely. Outgoing teams have been virtually connected to incoming teams and are able to easily conduct digital handovers.

Engineers in remote offices can read the notations and observations as well as see supporting photos or videos. During shift runs, remote operators can record observations in real-time via mobile devices. They share this information with the board operators and supervisors – with no personal face-to-face contact.

Establishing critical communications

These critical transitions are a key focal point for essential human communication to keep core processes running well. Knowledge management and maintaining the integrity of any knowledge capital are essential when continuous processes are in place. The need to maintain production at its optimal state should not be impacted by missing information as workforce members hand over to one another between shifts.

While process industries may be somewhat behind the curve on the digital transformation journey, according to research findings, a focus on worker safety appears to be a unifying driver for change.

Without repeatable procedures in place where human communication occurs, a potential gap is created for incidents to happen. As expensive installations of equipment and resources are run and maintained by a human workforce, the correct tooling and equipment – including those enabling clear communication and collaboration around details – are essential.

Big bang or step by step?

It is possible to implement PPM without a full IIoT roll-out. Replacing whiteboards, ad hoc conversations and checklist sheets with an OT-focused system, run in an IT-friendly way, can be a significant start to a successful digital transformation.

For general process optimization and to maintain a high level of overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), plant operations can be improved through the application of IIoT instrumentation and AI/ML analysis.

To reap the benefits of IIoT instrumentation, the human workforce in the system needs to be well informed.

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Andreas Eschbach is the founder and CEO of the software company eschbach.

This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.