The Connected Worker: Digitalizing Plant Rounds
Operators have been collecting data in the field for decades. As analog gauges and indicators were upgraded, digital readouts became available in control rooms, but the need for field readings did not disappear. Operators are still expected to walk around operating areas and record readings as part of their rounds. These walks expose personnel to sights, smells, sounds, etc. that can indicate an abnormality.
Operators today, however, are now relinquishing their clipboards and paper for digital technologies. Companies are finding that connecting their workers digitally in everyday tasks such as plant rounds improves not only communication and accountability, but also safety and operational stability. This article describes the digital transformation of the longrunning practice of plant rounds in chemical manufacturing facilities, as well as the associated challenges to be overcome.
The problem with manual field readings
Operators typically carry a clipboard with a paper that lists the field data to be collected during a specific time interval. That sheet of paper subsequently gets handed to a supervisor to review and then file. Inherent to this process are potential failure mechanisms and inconsistencies associated with both the manual data collection and the response to out-of-specification readings. Potential failure points include:
- Lack of version control. Copies of outdated round sheets may be incorrectly stored on computer desktops or operator lockers and desk drawers.
- Lack of accountability. There is no feasible way to track and verify that the readings were taken at the specified time intervals and at the right places in the operating area. For example, an operator could easily copy previous readings without actually going out into the field. If a reading is out-of-specification, there is little traceability to validate that appropriate actions were taken.
- Poor data visibility. Besides the operator, typically only the supervisor sees the data before it is filed away (unless a process upset or failure has occurred).
Analyzing relatively recent field data from operator rounds can reveal significant opportunities. For example, a process operating area had an observable product quality issue. Reviewing round sheet data from a period of six months determined the frequency of out-of-specification readings and the response taken to correct the deviation. The field readings included three of the top factors known to contribute to product quality, and they were collected every two hours. The review found that among the three top factors, readings were outside of the specified range in more than 50% of the round sheets. Additionally, among the instances the readings were out-of-range, 20% of the readings were out-of-specification by greater than 50% of the intended operating range. Because the prior readings were not widely shared or visible, the individuals or supervisors did not identify trends in the data. Without recognition of the trends, any corrective action taken was reactive rather than proactive.
Field readings are important to identify trends in the process that can forewarn out-of-specification final products, equipment failures, and process upsets. Continuously operating outside of the specified limits increases the probability of poor-quality product, equipment failures, or process upsets, which can cause unplanned downtime.
The digital round solution
The digital round approach allows for timestamping and geopositioning of data, thus increasing accuracy and accountability. It also increases data visibility, as digital data can be reviewed by any authorized user at any time, from any computer or mobile device. Users have access to the record of data from various plant units, enabling them to analyze the data over a period of time and spot operational trends.
Operators, supervisors, and engineers can analyze timestamped data stored electronically on database servers alongside readings stored in the distributed control system (DCS). The combination of round sheet and DCS data provides a more holistic view of the process and assets, improving troubleshooting and predictive analysis for equipment failure.
Selecting a digital platform
The first step in transitioning to digital rounds is to select the appropriate digital platform. A cross-functional team is best equipped to select the software and hardware. Consider including process and reliability engineers, operational personnel, and IT representatives. The team’s objectives are to:
- select the software
- select the hardware device
- develop a workflow process to convert paper field operator routes to digital rounds
- create an implementation plan
- execute the plan.
To select the best software, consider:
- existing software – evaluate all existing software in use and determine if it could serve as a platform for this new purpose
- data availability – data should be stored centrally with other process conditions that are populated automatically in the DCS
- additional requirements – for example, operators should be able to collect data offline if the wireless infrastructure does not have suitable connectivity, and operators could have the ability to scan an asset (e.g., a pump) to enable collection of a reading to reduce human error.
It is important to establish a long-term roadmap for future software capabilities, as well as site infrastructure. A major obstacle at our site was the lack of wireless infrastructure across all operating areas. Many of the data collection points were outside of the wireless coverage. The software had to allow an operator to download a round wirelessly, complete the route offline, and then sync the data. The ability to automatically sync once the operator returned to wireless connectivity was important to eliminate the need to dock the device to upload data. Our team also discussed the addition of a geopositioning feature to enable traceability of data collection. Requiring an operator to scan a barcode, or preferably a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag, to enable data collection was a future requirement of the software and site infrastructure.
After selecting the software, consider the hardware. Operators need to be equipped with a suitable mobile device platform, such as a mobile phone, small handheld device, tablet, or tablet/laptop hybrid device. To choose an appropriate platform, consider IT requirements, as well as the size and weight, electrical classification, and durability of the device.
In addition to supporting the chosen software, the device must comply with any IT requirements related to the operating platform, security, random-access memory (RAM) and hard drive capacity, glove compatibility, and RFID compatibility.
To select from the wide variety of mobile devices available, consider the long-term plan and potential future uses of the device. For our site, we chose a medium-sized tablet that had a large enough screen to view drawings and enable data entry, but was of a reasonable weight to carry for extended periods of time. The availability of a carrying strap was also considered, because it allows an operator to safely climb ladders and stairs to access data collection points.
The electrical classification of the site and associated limitations also helps to narrow the available options. At each manufacturing site, typically at least one area requires Class I Div. II standards for electrical equipment. Devices are available that meet Class I Div. II qualifications, or they could be purchased from a vendor that can encapsulate the device to meet such standards.
The selected tablet for our site was manufactured to Class I Div. II standards and included a hot-swappable battery feature, giving users the ability to extend the operation of the device without powering it down. Allowing an operator to swap batteries at a safe central location, such as the control room, was a key capability. Swapping batteries instead of charging on a dock or cable reduces the number of spare devices a site needs, which is overall more cost-effective. In addition, batteries for multiple tablets can charge in a battery bay using a single outlet, rather than occupying an outlet for each tablet, which is important when evaluating space constraints.
The durability of the device is a final consideration, as operators must use this device daily, often in outdoor environments. Not only should a device perform in the local environment, whether it is freezing temperatures, high heat conditions, rain, or snow, but it should be able to withstand general heavy use. For outdoor use, the screen should be viewable in strong sunlight. Any device used in the facility should be ruggedized to handle drops, bumps, scratches, and semi-corrosive areas. Consider the warranty type, length, and repair process when choosing hardware.
Transitioning to digital
After choosing an appropriate software and hardware, the next step is to digitalize individual field routes, which are composed of a specific set of field checkpoints.
Paper to electronic
A dedicated team of specialists is well equipped to convert all of the paper-based rounds to digital in a timely fashion. However, an alternative is to train employees on the process, transferring responsibility for route conversion in their associated areas to them. While this option is potentially more time-consuming, it helps to ensure the employees using the software can maintain the system with a high degree of ownership. At our facilities, the engineer for each respective operating area was responsible for transferring the paper routes to the software.
All area engineers are first trained on the software platform. At this stage, the benefits of selecting a software that the company already uses becomes apparent. Once area engineers are familiar with the software and the required inputs, they should verify the paper-based rounds to ensure that they are not outdated. Each area engineer should work with a qualified operator or area trainer to walk every datapoint on the round. This ensures:
- the datapoints are still existing (e.g., the equipment is in service)
- the data should be collected because it is valuable and informative
- the operator has the appropriate tools to take the readings (e.g., gauges are legible and accessible)
- the schedule for the points is logical
- the specification ranges are appropriate.
Once rounds are verified by engineers and operators, the engineer can enter the rounds into the software. The software can be configured to include conditions that inform data collection. For example, operator prompts in the software might change based on unit throughput rate, asset status (offline or online), and deviations of other readings. Next, operators should be trained to perform their rounds digitally. After the training, the operators should understand how to use the software, how the new rounds appear in the system, and how to navigate on the device.
While the digital system increases data visibility, it does not necessarily ensure actions are taken to investigate or correct out-of-specification readings. Thus, workflow processes need to be updated for reviewing and addressing readings that are not standard or not completed. The daily meeting is a good opportunity to review round data. Operators can quickly recall on the device screen all of the out-of-range datapoints and any rounds that are overdue for completion. As an operations group, the team can discuss any deviations and corrections that will be made. Engineering and leadership can also quickly review unit operation data and address data that need further action.
Building smarter rounds
To realize the full value of digital rounds, facilities can implement advanced actions in the software. These advanced actions should only be applied to assets that are most critical to the unit and limited to 10% of the total datapoints in the round. Examples of advanced actions include:
- automated communication – if a reading is out-of-range for a critical asset, the system can generate a notification to be sent to a specific list of personnel
- collection frequency change – if a seal is leaking, for example, the frequency at which the operator must collect that datapoint would change from every four hours to every hour to monitor the leak rate
- high-risk flagging – if the datapoint for a critical asset indicates it is not operating as intended and a spare is unavailable, the system would flag the at-risk situation.
Leveraging mobile device or tablet technology in a manufacturing setting is more complex than adopting the same technology in your daily life. Issues that may need to be addressed before the digital rollout include:
- Matching the devices to company standards. Devices need to operate according to company security requirements and standards for appearance, such as using a standard background image. Tablets and other devices should undergo extensive testing prior to deployment.
- Identifying a suitable wireless network. The devices need to connect to a wireless network, but that network should limit the websites that the devices are able to access. Our facilities deployed a tablet-specific network that ensured a secure connection and blocked websites beyond the standard company list.
- Restricting some device features. Our facilities use a Windows-based tablet that includes an app store, which could allow users to bypass normal website restrictions. The app store was disabled to prevent unapproved downloads and installations on the device. The camera is another function that should be evaluated for restriction. Our facility maintained this function to enable photos to accompany recommendations, among other purposes. The lock function was also adjusted to allow operators to walk between areas without having to continuously log back into the interface.
- Tracking users and device location. Unlike most company laptops, these devices will be shared among multiple users, which can obscure user identity and complicate locating missing devices. To ensure traceability of the tablets, a device management process requires users to check out a device at the start of their shift. At the end of a shift, the operator checks the device back in and notes the condition. The department who owns the device is notified if a device is not connected to the tablet network for a predetermined period of time, triggering an investigation into the last user, location of the device, etc.
Changing long-held practices often comes with some resistance, especially if it involves new technologies. Personnel may be unfamiliar with digital technology and they may be unwilling to leam at first. Therefore, ensuring the device is as user-friendly as possible is key to successfully transitioning to digital rounds. Trainees should be asked to report their comfort level with the new technology, and instructors should adapt accordingly.
At our facility, some operators were hesitant to adopt the digital technology because they believed that management would be surveilling their activities via the devices. It was important to dispel this belief and emphasize the true purpose of digitalization. Training began with an explanation of the objectives and benefits of digital rounds to help gain user buy-in.
The digital rounds platform can be leveraged for additional plant activities. Many functions that involve paper-based data collection on a timed basis can be transferred to the system. The same technology and process can be used to digitalize maintenance/reliability and health, safety, and environmental (HSE) rounds. The tablet itself can also be used for:
- electronic permitting – an operator can bring the tablet to the work area that requires a permit
- electronic procedures and checklists – procedures and checklists can be digitalized to drive accuracy and accountability
- electronic logbooks – logbooks can be viewed across all sites and by all individuals
- photography – electrical classification allows the device to be used to take photos for incident investigations, inspections, and workorders
- piping and equipment drawings – easily refer to any online data including drawings for quick reference and field markups.
Once the initial challenges associated with digitalization are overcome, the possibilities for a wireless device become endless. Giving field employees remote access to information once limited to paper or desktop computers enables a safer and more efficient workplace.
This article was written by Jordan Oligmueller from Chemical Engineering Progress and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.