While occupational safety incidents are at their lowest levels in recorded history , process safety incidents show no improvement – as evidenced by the number and severity of events that have occurred in the last five years, some of which have been catastrophic – ensuring that process safety commands the attention of the highest levels in an organization.

CEOs now more than ever are taking direct action and accountability for their organization, the employees, the community and the shareholders. This means enforce a hand of cultural and behavioral change and breaking down operational silos to ensure each group is communicating with one another. Furthermore, ensuring that information at hand is correct and holds the highest level of integrity and accuracy allows those using it to make sound business and operational decisions.

Challenging issues arise when organizations take on major safety initiatives without a clear understanding of the “As Is” organization. The cultural changes, behavioral issues and operational barriers faced by organizations at the data/informational level still exist today. Their challenge lies in justifying the return on investment of a capital project to reduce the risk of a statistically improbable event. However, forces exist that should improve the chances of securing the investment dollar despite enviable plant safety records. These include increasing commercial, environmental, regulatory and public-liability pressures; aging plants; and an aging workforce whose expertise is rapidly disappearing into retirement.

These factors all increase the costs and risks of plant ownership. However, they tend to get lost in today’s weak economy, when funds for any project are tight. Still, gambling with plant safety could prove very unwise. So what if senior executives could be shown that this investment actually produces measurable returns and pays for itself very quickly?

Fortunately, such solutions are available and involve fully harnessing plant information to share not only at the local facility, but across the whole organization. This is important since plant accident investigations often conclude that inadequate information sharing proved a major factor. The key rests with providing intuitive information technology to support critical business processes. This combines the strengths of IT in managing complex information assets with the strengths that people bring to solving problems, being creative, spotting trends, and planning and exercising judgment.

Legacy Plant to Digital Plant
Experience has shown that the information issues in legacy plants increasingly hamper operational excellence or continuous improvement initiatives, as the critical processes involved are not supported with the information that is needed. Generally, this vital information is inaccessible (i.e. siloed, in different systems and in different data formats), is missing, is out of date, or worse still is incorrect. The quality of this legacy information having decayed over time, from the initial plant handover of incomplete or inaccurate information, and missing as-built mark-ups during commissioning. This, coupled with the constants changes that occur during operations, many of which precede engineering due to operational imperatives, means that key initiatives such as operational integrity management, risk based inspections and predictive maintenance are built on a foundation of shifting sand. The foundation of critical information needed to ensure successful implementation of these critical initiatives is constantly changing and of dubious quality!

Until recently, the costs of capturing, cleaning, verifying and correcting such legacy information were prohibitively high. But available technology can now automate a very large portion of the work, using techniques such as document scraping that intelligently extract key information, and gateways that integrate different data formats and sources. This not only eliminates much tedious and costly work, it can automatically associate and cross-reference information and highlight inconsistent or missing information. It also frees up skilled staff to focus on resolving the genuinely deficient information. An exercise that would have been measured in man-years now takes just man-weeks. Such intuitive IT applications and the business processes they enable take plant operations into a new dimension. Call it the “digital plant.” It comprises the complete description of its corresponding physical plant (i.e. the as-operating plant). It covers a vast amount of information of almost every type, created using a wide variety of software. It includes 3D models, 2D drawings, P&ID schematics, equipment indexes, spares catalogs, stores’ inventories, procedures for operations, engineering and maintenance, safety instructions and the like.

The solution involves information management. Whether known as asset life cycle management (ALM), integrated asset management (IAM), or product life cycle management (PLM), this technology has a common purpose: unlocking and integrating the information silos.

It proves easy to see the impact that information management of the digital plant can have. With the technology available now, it is possible to browse and cross-reference every type of information across the entire enterprise. This is not limited to only “static” information such as schematics or specifications, but the continually changing information that every plant generates. At the practical day-to-day level, this allows plant operating personnel to monitor plant performance and status easily and in many different ways – from a computer screen anywhere in the plant.

Automatic alerts can be configured, not only to warn of process conditions that are out of limits, but also to present work packs for the necessary corrective actions and register an open task for their execution. Thus, work gets carried out promptly with complete and up-to-date information, saving time, man-hours and cost. It also eliminates two common sources of human error: uncertain information and failure to fully document a task on completion.

At a higher level, initiatives such as operational integrity management can be provided with integrated, cleansed and managed information to provide key performance indicators to measure status and highlight deviation from targets. Such visibility helps manage resources and sets priorities. It creates more scope for increased productivity and more effective impact assessment and the avoidance of unforeseen conflicts between apparently unrelated tasks. Without such an overview capability, those responsible must take positive steps to search out potential conflicts. This can prove time-consuming and can never prove completely reliable.

Avoiding the Unexpected
Powerful information management plays to our human talents for problem solving and creativity. It makes it easy to pull together completely different types of information and examine their interrelationships. For example, imagine that a particular pump proves unreliable in service for any number of reasons. By viewing comparative data about similar pumps in the plant, or across the organization, an engineer can look quickly for irregular patterns of behavior or compare maintenance histories.

The engineer may have a hunch about a likely cause. Reliable data allows him to test his ideas, while comprehensive cross-referencing of disparate information could lead him to an unexpected diagnosis that otherwise might be missed. Clearly, this sort of capability makes troubleshooting and routine maintenance easier and more productive.

But the potential for spotting the unexpected triggers more than simply economic benefits. Many safety incidents arise from something unexpected, but why should that be? Because those concerned don’t have sufficient, complete or reliable information. The problem only gets worse as plants become more complex. Only an application that can integrate the silos of information and that supports suitable processes with quality information can transform process and safety data into actionable information to prevent daily plant incidents from turning into serious or even catastrophic events.

Opening the Window
Today’s technology offers lots of firepower, but how does it work in practice? This is an important question since the digital plant can prove to be an “information mammoth”, a daunting prospect even to experienced information specialists. In addition, every discipline must be able to easily access and share all available information and be confident that it is up-to-date and accurate.

For example, one technology supplier’s window onto the digital plant is AVEVA NET, which has critical and fundamental characteristics required to create and maintain the digital plant such as:

  • Configurable gateways that integrate all the silos of information found in process plant
  • Automatically finds and maintains equipment and system tags and links all of their associated information
  • Configuration management that enables a complete assessment of the impact of a proposed change in relation to all available information
  • Queries the integrated information sources and reports inconsistencies, missing information and deviations to specifications and standards

If you consider that a typical plant may have millions of tagged items with tens of millions of associations, the above characteristics are essential to the viability of creating and sustaining a digital plant.

Such a window on the digital plant enables users to quickly access, navigate and collaborate with all available information. For example, in investigating an unreliable pump, the maintenance engineer might jump between a spreadsheet, a specification, a vendor manual, a P&ID, a historian log or a navigable 3D model of the plant, simply by clicking on hot spots in the different views. Alternatively, he or she may undertake this investigation with a specialist or vendor watching his or her every move in the context of the issue at hand. Since no limit exists to the type or quantity of information that can be handled, plant operators can configure and populate their particular information management solutions to meet their needs. Let’s say no 3D model of the plant exists and the P&IDs are paper documents? No problem. Simply load digital photographs, 3D laser survey data or scanned drawings and apply hot spots to individual items in the images.

The Bottom Line
Difficult times invariably increase cost pressures, which create the temptation to “manage down” spending, even on critical activities like safety. So it’s important to provide in more detail how information management actually can save money – often quite a lot of it – while maintaining or increasing plant safety.

Independent analysis estimates that an enterprise with 500 skilled workers, each spending seven hours per week just hunting down information, loses as much as $7.5 million worth of productivity every year, let alone increase levels of operational risk. When you scale this to the size of your own operation, it can be a sobering statistic. And if you consider this figure too high, remember that when someone can’t find something, they usually ask a colleague, which doubles the man-hours wasted, or if under pressure, go with their gut feel, an extremely risky approach. Add to this the knock-on effects of delays in fixing problems: lost production, rework, materials wastage, safety hazards, staff morale and more.

One major oil company found that its information management system increased staff productivity to nearly 80 percent from below 20 percent, freeing up resources for value-added maintenance, engineering and operations activities. Suddenly, “nice to have” looks more like “need to have”.

Further, if you are unfortunate enough to experience a serious plant incident, then the benefits of having an up-to-date information system are quickly realized. For example, Suncor Energy, a leading company in the development of the Alberta oil sands reserves, suffered a catastrophic fire at one of its plants. Because a digital plant existed, and was known to be accurate and reliable, reinstatement was quick and efficient. The plant was back in operation in nine months, half the usual time for such a project. Suncor estimated the cost saving to be around $1 billion.

Doing it Right
Plant safety is a serious matter, of course. But trying to drive it up directly only really treats the symptoms of a more fundamental weakness. By bringing your digital plant under control completely, safety will improve simply by managing plant operations better.

Doing it right embraces doing it safely. And adopting information management tools to do this can make every aspect of plant operation more efficient and productive while minimizing costs and saving money.
So, in persuading upper management that an investment in safety can reap a solid ROI, the question you ask shouldn’t be, “How do you put a price on safety?” Rather, it should be, “How do you put a price on a lackof safety?”

About the author:
Clive Wilby, a registered European and Chartered Engineer, is a Fellow of the Institute of Measurement & Control and a member of the Institution of Engineering Technology. He is a principal consultant for Operations Solutions at AVEVA and specializes in operating processes and information systems. For more information, visit www.aveva.com.