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Procedural automation can augment operators

Sept. 22, 2017
Manual processes and human error that hinder process applications can be confronted by automating procedural operations with software tools, such as NovaTech's Augmented Manual Procedures (AMP), according to Mike Williams, consultant at Modern Automation Consulting Services LLC.

It's hard for humans to do what's right all the time, so we've developed reminders to help—everything from strings around fingers to alarms clocks to Post-It notes and all kinds of computerized alerts. However, even though these tools are helpful, they're often overwhelmed by the sheer volume and variety of tasks to be completed, which means many are forgotten and neglected. That, coupled with our notoriously short and spotty attention spans, makes consistent performance periods close to impossible for even the most dedicated individuals, including those operating and managing process applications and facilities.

One of the most useful methods in the process industries has been the evolution and deployment of procedural operations, which walk operators and engineers through the steps they must take to complete complex tasks, such as start-ups, controlled and emergency shutdowns, running in impaired states and even some normal operations. Traditionally contained in printed manuals, some procedural tools have recently gained increasing automation and networking capabilities to make their instructions easier for users, though the challenges they face remain as daunting as ever.

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"Only 40% of devices in process facilities are connected to control systems," said Mike Williams, consultant at Modern Automation Consulting Services LLC. "So, 60% of the valves, motors and other equipment in those facilities aren't automated and usually need manual procedures. But the main question is, why aren't operators following those procedures?"

Williams reports that operators don't tend to like the flowcharts that engineers come up with, and would rather have succinct checklists that they can follow more easily. One solution is using the ISA S88 batch standard's operations and phases descriptions in natural language, which can turn lengthy instructions into manageable chunks and map them into more usable procedures, even for continuous process applications.

Williams presented "Augmented Manual Procedures: A Case for Change" on Sept. 19, the second day of the NovaTech Automation Summit 2017 in Baltimore, Md. That case, he adds, is based on the fact that, "Human error is the primary cause in 42% of abnormal events, and that figure rises to 80% when human error is included as a secondary cause, according to reports by ARC Advisory Group."

Williams added that he analyzed AIChE's 2012 database for 2,000 chemical facilities, and found that formerly steady reductions in safety incidents have stalled recently. "Over the last 20 years, there was a 20% decrease in incidents due to improved design and engineering of safer equipment, and improved health, safety, and environment management systems (HSEMS), but now we're seeking to address more human factors because lately, we're not getting better," said Williams. "Even though there are fewer incidents, the remaining events are far worse in magnitude and severity. We're not getting to the root cause and solving it."

Mitigating the impact of abnormal events requires a closer look at the interactions between people, equipment and their methods, reports Williams, because there's little if any coordination between the people side with its operator training and behavioral management, the equipment side with its machine designs and safety instrumented functions, and the methods/procedures side with its standard operating procedures (SOP) and automation strategies. "The breakthrough in integrating people, equipment and procedures is integrating routine and non-routine manual tasks with automated procedure and failsafe designs that can provide the next paradigm and operational performance," said Williams.

NovaTech reported that its bridging innovation in this area is its Augmented Manual Procedures (AMP) software that:

  • Fully utilizes the validated content of existing human work instruction;
  • Enhances content consistent with AICHE guidelines and ISA 88 standards;
  • Integrates key breakpoints, such as completed manual tasks, with state-based automation interlocks;
  • Delivers virtual work procedure in a mobile format to enable operators with computer-assisted instruction and confirmation, such as virtual I/O; and
  • Executes manual procedures in concert with automated control strategies.

Scheduled to be released at the end of 2017, AMP is a platform-independent, patent-pending automated solution that reduces the risk of abnormal events. Combining other patented NovaTech technology, AMP enables process users to cost-effectively error-proof human execution of manual tasks in cooperation with any existing, automated process control system without adding more I/O points. These typically manual tasks include material loading and unloading, startups and shutdowns, maintenance preparation, tank-to-tank lineups, great changes, clean-in-place, decoking and line switchovers.  

"AMP takes SOPs and puts them in an S88-based executable formats with a workflow engine in the background," explains Williams. "This is important because, for example, the actual odds are one in 150 that a tank transfer has a chance of some incident occurring.  This is one of the least-automated tasks, and operators depend on training and work instructions. We want to drive out variability, but so far, all out computing power hasn't been much. This is why we believe that solving these problems is a big opportunity for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Procedural automation can streamline processes and improve quality, and it's why we've been working on AMP for two years."

To create, manage and execute procedures, AMP uses four main steps:

  • Creates procedures graphically using an intuitive object palette built into Microsoft Visio software that allows procedure writers and engineers to collaborate and capture best practices and industry knowledge into consistently structured SOPs. Underlying code is used to create conventional SOPs and drive the Procedure Overview Display and operators can view on any standard PC or tablet. (Viewing on mobile devices is coming soon, including virtual graphics displayed on Microsoft HoloLens headsets.)
  • Generates consistent SOPs in hardcopies and PDFs from the structured Visio environment, so there's no chance of missed or forgotten steps because everything has to connect. The layout and location of information is kept uniform, and standardized across revisions, allowing users to quickly find what they're looking for.
  • Manages and executes procedures with AMP's Procedure Overview Display, which delivers SOPs to operators through an intuitive checklist interface allows easy scheduling and running of approved procedures.  Real-time interaction between the executing SOP and the control system ensures accurate data capture and timely execution of procedure steps, which cab be executed manually or with computer assistance. Embedded scripts can extend functionality with logic and access to other databases systems.
  • Ensure accountability with executed procedure records, including time stamps, operator comments, and control system results, which are generated as secure PDFs.

"Electronic forms for procedures make them easier and more palatable, and good perception drives good behavior," said Chris Kourliouros, product marketing director at NovaTech. "For example, a typical tank transfer process will have a web-based procedure to check off, so operators can step through and confirm their awareness, along with time stamps and user authentication to add accountability. Steps can be combined with graphics, photos and video that may be viewed on workstations, mobile devices, and soon, Microsoft HoloLens.”   

As a result, AMP's main benefits include:

  • Safer and more efficient operations by reducing human error and integrating SOPs into the operator's daily workflow.  Updates to procedures are reflected instantly in AMP's Procedure Overview Display. Repeatable and reliable execution of the latest SOPs drive efficiency and safety under all operating conditions.
  • Consistent operations across multiple control systems because both AMP's servers and client are built on a platform-independent OPC architecture, allowing it to be deployed in any control system environment.  This creates a uniform operator experience and procedural consistency in all facilities.
  • Transfer of knowledge by bridging the gap between experienced personnel and new operators by using visually designed SOPs that are more effective in transferring know-how. This reinforces training with every procedure, while comments and other feedback loops allow continuous improvement.   
  • Successfully striking the balance between manual and automated procedures in a platform-neutral manner.
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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