Process Safety Futures

Oct. 21, 2013
Process safety systems have arrived at a juncture of transformation.

Most process safety systems in use today were installed during the first wave of distributed control systems (DCSs) and programmable logic controllers (PLCs) in the ’70s. ARC Advisory Group estimates that the value of the installed base reaching the end of useful life could be in the neighborhood of $8 billion worldwide.

Conventional control systems are inherently limited in their ability to make cognitively complex decisions. Most operations are based on central operator consoles that require training and need close attention. They display too much data and too little relevant information. In crisis situations, with many hundreds and even thousands of simultaneous alarms, physical cooperation and communications become overwhelming and human intervention is ineffective.

International safety standards, such as IEC 61511, require end users to conduct analysis of hazards and risks, in addition to allocating safety functions to protection layers. However, becoming just standards-compliant falls far short of proactive safety management.

“Up to now, safety professionals have focused primarily on personnel and occupational safety. More focus is needed on process safety,” says Eddie Habibi, CEO of PAS, a company focused on industrial process alarms and operator effectiveness. “In the future, human operators will gradually be designed out of directly managing highly critical abnormal situations. Safety instrumented systems (SIS) embedded in designs will account for human factors.”

Alarms must be able to direct the operators’ attention to the most important problems that need to be acted upon, using priorities to indicate the degrees of importance, plus the corresponding corrective actions that must be taken. Improved effectiveness comes not from training the operator to use increasingly complex systems, but from developing systems that adapt effectively to maximize throughput with a minimum of operator involvement.

What’s needed are full process monitoring programs with diagnostics to provide not only early warning of accidents, but predictive maintenance that effectively prevents accidents before they occur; operating controls that effectively ensure safety with use of automated systems to change cognitive demands on operators.

Current DCSs and PLC-based systems have received mostly incremental improvements since being built on 1970s technology. Decades-old deterministic architectures will likely give way to the non-hierarchical distributed networks of the industrial Internet—what the Germans term Industry 4.0. This is where the paradigm shift will occur. The next wave of safety system designs will be tied closely to these changes.

Mobile devices everywhere
The steep decline of tethered (powered) PCs in industrial environments is caused by a major shift in the landscape: the use of mobile devices. Today, every engineer and technician has a tablet and smartphone. Many companies allow BYOD (bring your own device) and others simply provide work-area tablets.

The use of mobile devices improves operating efficiency, boosts productivity, drastically reduces cost and increases throughput with existing people and resources. Key benefit: It allows applications to be easily distributed to the right person, at the right location, at the right time.

Software recently introduced by Automation Control Products (ACP, in Alpharetta, Ga., provides significant new mobile functionality. “Relevance software delivers itemized information content to selected individuals who have the right skillsets, are at a proximate location in the factory, and are available to perform the needed services,” says Matt Crandell, ACP’s president.

Mobile-device software has many wide-ranging applications in general factory and process environments. With safety systems, scheduling and priorities are handled by the system, not human supervisors who may be stressed by the real-time emergency. It’s a substantial shift in productivity and effectiveness.

Beyond the impact of mobile functionality in the factory, the impact on safety systems is enormous. This is not just another safety improvement; it represents a completely new paradigm in factory and process safety implementation. This is the future of process safety systems.

>> Jim Pinto is a technology futurist, international speaker and automation industry commentator. You can email him at [email protected] or review his prognostications and predictions on his website:

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