Operators and Maintenance Technicians regularly conduct rounds to identify potential safety and compliance issues, identify impending maintenance interventions and keep plants running efficiently. This historically accepted way of doing business is being challenged in many industries. As the existing experienced workforce retires taking their tribal knowledge and experience, the value of rounds is being challenged by the new generation of employees. They are questioning the accepted benefits of capturing information on paper logs that are commonly filed and not actively used in decision making. This, combined with the current advanced wireless technology, has placed more focus on automating the data capturing activities and eliminating some physical rounds. Adding on top of that is the requirement to streamline operator activities due both to a lack of qualified replacement candidates and the ongoing pressure to manage cost results in the seeking of a technical solution. Technology alone is seen as a way to address these issues, but just transferring the paper round to a tablet is not the answer.
Traditional operator rounds entailed taking a clip board with a stack of papers out to the production or inspection areas. On a more or less regular interval, e.g. twice a shift, every two hours, etc. the operator, or their helper would walk the assigned area and document process variables and general housekeeping / safety conditions. This activity was critical for stranded assets and geographically dispersed processes. Now, with the availability of wireless sensors and IIoT are rounds even necessary? And if so, what should the operators be doing different?
Yes, rounds should still be conducted. The benefits of properly organized operator rounds cannot be over emphasized. The operators are the eyes and ears of the production process and the rounds are a structured method to facilitate this. During a round the operators should be identifying, documenting, resolving (where appropriate), and escalating any issues that they encounter. These actions alone provide significant benefit by addressing issues before they become catastrophic resulting in compromised safety, extended down conditions, and product loss. Qualified operators should have the ability to run a safer, more consistent and predictable process that results in achieving customer requirements, meeting production schedules, and delivering value to the company.
Leveraging technology to improve operator rounds is certainly a reasonable idea, but technology in and of itself is not the total answer. Technology enabled operator rounds allow workers to use mobile devices to inspect and collect readings for operational equipment. The captured data is communicated quickly and accurately to a back-end database or historian providing organizations with an improved ability to manage operating conditions in relatively real time, initiate corrective work requests and address operating anomalies.
Additional benefits of technology enabled rounds is to validate that the round was actually completed during the defined time fence; that the readings were captured in the field at the equipment by comparing the round readings with the associated system integrated meter readings; provide easily accessible graphs to help make the information captured more actionable; and deliver rounds exception reports focused on managing the process variations in near real time.
As in the past, qualified operators are a fundamental requirement in competently enhancing performance real-time. Properly directed, structured, and technology enabled operator rounds provide the basis for consistent, predictable outcomes. In summary some of these benefits include:
- Increased consistency in operator performance across all shifts,
- Less dependency on tribal knowledge,
- Documented process compliance,
- Identification and documentation of process anomalies with appropriate corrective actions,
- Improved downtime identification leading to a reduction in catastrophic failures,
- Increased process reliability, consistency, and profitability.
Integrating a Technology solution with the People doing the job and the work Process results in Adoption and sustained success. Technology alone is not enough.