Seamless Integration Promotes Collaboration

What Operators Need The Most to Succeed Is Information. However, the Challenge Is to Provide Seamless Access to Multiple Sources of Information

By Keith Larson

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When push really comes to shove, what operators most need to succeed is access to the information they need, when they need it—and ideally nothing more. Process upsets and other crises draw these priorities in stark relief: raw data, alarms and other inputs must be transformed into actionable information in context in real-time—easily viewed, listened to, or otherwise sensed and interpreted in an integrated environment regardless of source.

This includes traditional data, such as from the control system itself and secondary plant and business systems, as well as voice and video communication with field operators and other personnel. The challenge is to provide seamless access to these multiple sources of information, but at the same time not overload the operator with information that's irrelevant or data that's too granular.

ABB's approach to improving operator effectiveness through plant systems integration is based on the premise that an integrated operations environment, such as the company's System 800xA platform, must enable vertical, horizontal and functional information integration as well as seamless integration of collaboration and communication tools.

Vertical integration entails access to all information relevant to plant operation such as production orders, schedules and other business system information. Horizontal integration means access to information from other control systems and field devices, independent of vendor or vintage. Functional integration implies the availability of information from complementary plant systems not directly related to automation, such as for managing safety, power, maintenance, laboratory information and documents. And the ability to seamlessly integrate video, voice and other telecommunications systems directly into the unified operations environment provides an especially powerful tool for collaborative problem solving—while minimizing operator distraction.

Further, the ease with which these integration tasks can be accomplished depends to a large degree on a plant's choice of automation and information management architecture. The infrastructure should function as a seamless middleware, allowing the creation of ad hoc reports and decision-support mash-ups that combine individual pieces of information no matter where they may reside. ABB's System 800xA makes this possible because it's built from the ground up on an object-oriented architecture that effectively separates all the thousands of physical and logical entities that make up a plant from the information that describes them.

Integration Reduces Errors and Delays

When it comes to boosting operator effectiveness, the integration of information from complementary plant systems reduces the risk of manual data entry errors and delays. For example, the seamless flow of sales order information into raw material purchasing, production planning and process control systems means more accurate planning as well as improvements in process stability and production output. A delay of just one or two hours in reporting the quantities of ingredients consumed in one process step may mean that there isn't enough material for an upcoming batch. Handling these and other types of information in an integrated fashion means that all reporting is automatic, correct and instantaneous.

Process operators also require on-demand access to CAD drawings, user instructions and other plant documentation. During a process upset, a frantic search for a misplaced binder ranks high on the list of scenarios to be avoided. And once located, there's always the risk that the information is outdated and incorrect. Indeed, inability to access correct procedures or operating instructions has been cited as a contributing factor to a range of plant safety incidents.

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