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In the process control world, most things run smoothly. Control systems and field devices are more reliable than ever, intelligent equipment communicates up and down the line, automatic diagnostics take care of many problems, and human operators are reduced to a life that often consists of 99% boredom and 1% panic.
Equipment is so reliable, we sometimes forget how to use it, start it up, shut it down, or make adjustments. Problems occur so rarely, we forget how to fix them. All the information needed is in the plant somewhere, buried in a manual, a set of handwritten instructions, or an operator's head. Knowledge management (KM) is one way to organize all this data.
KM can gather all the printed documentation, handwritten notes, operator knowledge, real-time data, diagnostic tests, tuning instructions, "perfect batch" recipes, and other plant secrets. KM can then grind it all up, put it away into a database, and produce the needed information on demand.
If it works, that is.
Unfortunately, KM has proven to be a huge bomb over in the information technology (IT) world, as it failed to live up to such promises. But that's not the first time KM bombed.
The first time KM failed was millions of years ago, on the remote planet Altair IV. As science fiction fans know, the Krell stored the knowledge of their entire race in a gigantic computer for the benefit of Krellkind. Alas, as told in the movie Forbidden Planet (MGM, 1956), the KM system destroyed the Krell race and threatened to kill off actors Leslie Nielsen, Walter Pidgeon, and Anne Francis, plus Robbie the Robot, a few million years later.
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
KM reached its zenith in 2000, when the Internet was booming. KM was all the rage, software vendors promised wondrous things, and company execs told their information technology (IT) people to go out and buy one.
Alas, KM's time seems to have come and gone, almost in the blink of an eye. "It looks like KM is fading fast," says Mark Clark, my local IT and ERP consultant here in Cedar Rapids. "A lot of the links I find are dead and key publications seem to have ceased publication. Several deep thinkers are still actively engaged but the fire seems to have subsided."
Such a shame, because the technique held such promise. "If done right, KM is supposed to create a more collaborative environment, cut down on duplication of effort, and encourage knowledge sharing"saving time and money in the process," says Eric Berkman, a writer for Darwin magazine. "The problem is, in many cases KM devolved into a purely technical process, resulting in expensive software implementations sitting unused by oblivious, fearful, or resentful employees." Sounds like an ERP or CRM system, doesn't it?
Now, KM has reached the process control and automation world. Process control vendors hawk the wonders of KM, just like the IT folks did back in 2000. Will KM bomb over here, too?
If you do a little analysis of your situation beforehand, you can find tools that will let you manage the process knowledge available to you. We found several examples of plants that are using various versions of KM, including quite a few home-grown systems that seem to work very well.
Nobody knows the definition of knowledge management. "There is no useful academic definition for KM," says Clark. "Instead, it has become a marketing buzzword. Companies in the software industry have discovered KM is a hot topic, so suddenly any piece of software that deals with data qualifies to be called KM. This includes databases, process historians, document management, and software that does collaboration, data mining, content management, or data warehousing."
In some cases, KM is just a revisit with old artificial intelligence (AI), expert systems, and rule-based logic that failed in the late 1980s and mid 1990s process control marketplace. On the other hand, today's modern information gathering systems , including process historians, SCADA and HMI systems, XML-based communications, Ethernet-based networks, fieldbuses, smart instrumentation, and all the other advanced hardware and software available to us ,fulfill the promises of the 1980s, because they make it possible for the AI, expert systems, predictive maintenance, condition-based monitoring, and all the other advanced asset management software to get all the data they need.
Some practical definitions might be when such data is used by expert system software to help tune a system, by RCM software to diagnose an equipment malfunction, or by an engineer or operator to gain insight or direction into how to deal with a alarm situation. Duncan Schleiss, director of marketing at Emerson Process Management (www.emersonprocess.com), puts it simply: "Knowledge management is getting the right information to the right person (or system) at precisely the right time."
For example, suppose you have to start up a heat exchanger that's been on line for the past five years. It's been running continuously, the company that built it is out of business, the operator who used to run the system retired to Florida, and you had to shut down the exchanger for maintenance. How do you start it back up? If you can open up a notebook and take out a set of written instructions, then that's knowledge management. The data exists, and you know where to find it.
At the other extreme, you go to your PC, link into your KM software, and enter: "Heat exchanger XYZ startup procedure." The KM software searches the Internet, the original vendor's site, procedures stored in memory, captured keyboard strokes from five years ago, a transcribed conversation with the old operator, and it eventually finds the procedure buried somewhere under a pile of bytes. That's knowledge management, too.
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