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Alarms Continue to Be a Nuisance

Honeywell Process Solutions, out now with new alarm management software, is perplexed over why manufacturers fail to keep their alarm programs on track.

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With all the industry has learned about technology—how to automate a plant, how to communicate between automation entities, how to keep workers safer—it amazes me that industry still faces the kinds of accidents it does. Fires, explosions, leaks…that lead to huge losses, including lives. It seems that no matter how we advance in technological realms, we still can’t seem to factor appropriately for the human element.

What else would explain why process plants continue to throw thousands of alarms a day at their control room operators, expecting these people to be able to make quick and informed decisions about which alarms they actually need to be concerned about? True, there are plenty of informed ideas about how all these nuisance alarms need to be handled, and industry experts continue to refine guidelines about how best to convey information to operators (in fact, the ASM Consortium just released the second edition of its HMI design guidelines; more on that in the new year).

But experts throughout the industry ecosystem are still scratching their heads about how to get through to the plants that just aren’t managing their alarms effectively. Folks at Honeywell Process Solutions (HPS) are so confounded they thought it might be a good idea to gather a few industry journalists recently for a video chat, to find out what we’ve heard in our travels; what people are telling us about why they’re not following through with alarm management tasks.

Alarm management has been on my mind quite a bit lately, actually. You can read most of what I had to contribute to the discussion in my October feature on alarm management.

As Kevin Brown, global best practice lead for HPS, noted, there are some $10 billion in losses caused by alarm management issues every year, according to the ASM Consortium. Plants are hit with as many as 4,000 alarms a day. And in a three-phase approach to alarm management, operations “get success, have results, but long term, we’re not seeing it,” he said.

Brown is concerned that manufacturers aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. “They’re looking for a silver bullet,” he said. They want to put alarm plans in place and then never have to think about them again. And he agrees with comments that they’re concerned about “the cost of people they have to get involved in rationalization.”

As a case in point, Brown mentioned one HPS customer that was experiencing some 350 alarms per operator each day. They got the total down to 10-11 alarms per hour, and then 4.5 alarms. “But they were back up to 28 alarms an hour in five months,” he said. It’s as if they completed their alarm management program, “and then they put it on the shelf.”

Although Honeywell could keep selling the same services over and over again to manufacturers that fail to follow up on alarm management the first time around, that’s certainly less than ideal. “I don’t want to be, 10 years down the road, having the same conversations,” Brown said. “But some of the biggest companies out there are still not taking that next step.”

That next step is rationalizing the alarms—making sure that bad actors don’t pop back up. “If you rationalize every alarm that gets added, then you won’t add them,” Brown contends.

In response to a suggestion that it might help for customers to be able to quantify the time commitment, Brown conceded that the time commitment for alarm management is indeed significant. “For a mid-sized refinery, it could take a year’s investment,” he said.

Rationalization, however, does not have to take a lot of time—follow-up bad actor cleanup meetings could take 5-10 minutes once a week. “The rationalization process, instead of days, is minutes,” Brown added. “I believe that it can be done efficiently with not a lot of time.”

On the table for discussion was DynAMo, the alarm suite that Honeywell unveiled about a month ago and will release early next year. It’s advanced alarm management software designed to reduce the overall number of alarms while also helping operators figure out which are the most critical.

A customizable, role-based dashboard lets operators, engineers and managers view their alarm systems at a glance. The software is also compatible with mobile devices so that personnel can view alarm metrics at any time. “It tells you exactly what you need to know, when you need to know it,” Brown said.

Honeywell has gotten a lot of good feedback on the software, Brown said. So much so that the company decided not to release a beta version. “There’s so much to be gained,” he said. “If we wait for beta testing, it could take six to eight months longer for release.”

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