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Chemical operations are inherently hazardous, so safety is paramount. Since one plant can produce several products, each with its own unique manufacturing process, chemical operations have complicated alarm relationships that require audits and checks. As plants expand, they add new equipment with additional alarms. These new sources of alarms may be integrated using the manufacturer’s default alarm settings, leading to coverage gaps. For example, default alarm priority settings like “LOW” or “100” may leave gaps that go unaddressed without frequent review.

Left to themselves, factory alarms will proliferate and devolve into disorder. The way to prevent that is to implement strategic alarm management.

What is strategic alarm management?

This is a systematic approach for defining, prioritizing and classifying alarms and documenting the correct response and time parameters for each alarm or event notification, generally from process control systems, of which there are many. It is strategic because it is based on data-driven analysis of the business needs of a specific facility.

SCADA systems generally do a good job of tracking, integrating and recording production data points. But alarm management is often not a focused feature of these systems. That’s where purpose-built software like TiPS LogMate comes in.

The following outlines how personnel can establish control over processes in chemical operations with strategic alarm management, as well as explain how TiPS LogMate products can make that goal easier to reach.

How alarm management provides visibility in facilities

Chemical manufacturing consists of several main processes:

  • Managing feedstocks (raw materials).
  • Streamflow processes to achieve a biological or chemical transformation of the raw materials into different substances.
  • Separation of materials – the finished product from raw materials or byproducts.

Subprocesses include one or more of the following:

Endless possibilities and complexity

Each product in every plant can utilize any combination of the above processes, each with its own parameters. Equipment for every function is generally grouped, each process group may have its own control systems, and each control system will have its own alarms. The complexity seemingly grows daunting, and over time as the plant evolves, operators will lose visibility of critical alarms.

Thus, to be effective, an alarm management system must connect to multiple disparate alarm control systems. But, just connecting and annunciating alarms is not enough – a typical plant can generate hundreds of alarms in a single shift. Operators need to have visibility to exactly what each alarm means, where it is and how to respond within a given period of time. What’s more, they need to clearly understand the priority and urgency of each alarm. What is the potential risk? Is it life-threatening? Will it affect production? By how much?

Without strategic alarm management, operators end up reacting in the dark. They may experience an alarm flood and quickly get overwhelmed, resulting in errors and accompanying losses.

To summarize, strategic alarm management brings visibility to a facility by prioritizing which alarms are most important and defining the appropriate response. Operators get real-time information about how well alarms are working (or not).

Ways to use alarm management in chemical operations

The starting point for strategic alarm management is the acquisition of accurate and complete alarm history data from all process control and other relevant systems. This is the baseline state.

At the same time, operators need to develop an alarm philosophy. Essentially, operators will determine and document the company’s expectations, standards, responsibilities, definitions, principles, processes and priorities. After that, they can design, implement and maintain an effective alarm management system. Critically, the philosophy must align with the company’s unique strategic business priorities.

From the alarm philosophy, the facility develops a risk-based protection hierarchy that spells out which events are low in risk of loss (a minor oil leak) all the way to those that can result in catastrophic consequences (a boiler operating far in excess of expected temperature). Low risk means low priority. High risk gets high priority.

Then operators need to review and analyze the distribution of alarms to determine which ones occur in what frequency. This will help accurately set expectations going forward.

The next step is alarm rationalization, which in short, is the process of determining which points truly require alarming in a particular facility based on the alarm philosophy and protection hierarchy.

Rationalization is a time-consuming process and is best handled by a cross-functional team from production, engineering, technology, risk management and finance. This helps ensure buy-in to the process from the entire organization.

The goal is to get to an appropriate population of alarms related to the control system’s master alarm database that is necessary, correctly prioritized and clear, and that identifies appropriate and necessary responses expected from operators.

Key deliverables in chemical manufacturing alarm management

Identify nuisance alarms or inhibited alarms

Are there alarms that come up frequently, but are not important? For example, is a standard step in the process progression alarmed? If there is no risk involved, it does not need an alarm. Remove it.

Are there a lot of alarms that have been inhibited (set to not activate)? Determine why they are inhibited – if they are not necessary for the process, remove them.

Eliminating redundant alarms allows operators to focus on the really important ones.

Evaluate and prioritize alarms

When revising a chemical operations alarm management plan, consider these key questions:

  • What does each alarm point monitor, and how? Is it necessary and appropriate?
  • Is it set to a particular parameter (ex: ambient temperature), and is it the correct parameter?
  • Are the alarms clearly defined?
  • What is the correct operator response for the alarm? Is it clearly defined?
  • Does an alarm and the associated response need updating?
  • Are alarms routed to the correct console to receive a response?
  • What is the risk associated with failure to respond to the alarm?

High-risk alarms that could result in injury or shutdowns must receive the highest priority. These must be prioritized for immediate annunciation and short response times.

Set alarm relationships and improve alarm distribution

While reviewing the baseline state, operators must check for interrelationships between processes and ensure that alarms are properly distributed to reflect them. In other words, does a failure in one process potentially cause failures in others? Operators need to know how to respond to the situation.

As the plant adds equipment over time, make this approach part of the installation process to check for proper alarming to reflect new relationships with other equipment. Don’t rely on default factory settings, because they don’t reflect the actual situation.

Establish alarm KPIs

Choose key performance indicators (KPIs) that define success for the program. Clear, simple metrics must go with each KPI. For example, a facility may have 150 nuisance alarms per week. The KPI might be a reduction in such alarms, with a target of 85%. Alternatively, the facility might want to monitor activities in specific process groups and use more accurate alarm data to improve production.

Operator response time is arguably the most important KPI. Response time metrics for high-risk events logically need to be shorter. For less critical events, response time can reflect the lower risk.

A few other examples of important metrics for chemical operations might include:

  • Number of alarms per operator per 10-minute period.
  • Distribution of low-, medium- and high-priority alarms.
  • Percentage of 10-minute periods containing more than 10 alarms.
  • Quantity of chattering and fleeting alarms.

Relevant industry guidelines might be useful here. Consult the Engineering Equipment and Materials Users Association (EEMUA) and International Society of Automation (ISA) organizations for the latest standards.

Speed up alarm response time with monitoring and analytics

If process control teams cannot measure and record performance over time against the KPIs, they are useless. To control the process, facilities need effective technology enablers.

What’s more, analytics can be useful for predicting the effects of certain alarms on things like equipment life and maintenance by tracking alarm trends over time. In other words, alarm management goes from being reactive to predictive.

Finally, a single interface to gather, route and display alarms, priorities, interrelationships and required responses is crucial to optimize operator performance. A flurry of simple text-based messages will lead to errors and overwhelm. What facilities need is a system capable of filtering important information for them.

The result

After completing the steps above, chemical operations teams will have:

  • A baseline alarm database.
  • A company-specific alarm management philosophy.
  • A new alarm management plan with rationalized and updated alarms, priorities and solid operator instructions, all for use going forward.
  • KPIs and metrics to measure success in the future.

Remember, this is not a one-and-done process.

Change in chemical facilities is continuous. Strategic alarm management must be continuous as well. Without enabling technology, the task can be overwhelming in terms of time and resources. Furthermore, manual processes increase the risk of critical errors, which can lead to expensive shutdowns or worse.

How TiPS LogMate can help

LogMate is a full-featured software tool that includes a suite of products to simplify managing alarms. Starting with data capture through rationalization and ongoing performance analytics, it helps control teams properly manage the entire process.

LogMate offers a consolidated, holistic view of all alarms in a facility. Through its various modules, LogMate provides the following broad benefits to the chemical operations industry:

  • Established connectivity to many control systems, along with custom integration support.
  • Rationalization tools within LogMate supported by workshops led by industry-leading experts.
  • Analytics features to identify relationships between alarms, alarm floods, chatter and other events.

Contact us today to learn more or get a free demonstration.