To be more competitive, efficient and cost-effective, more and more companies are implementing automation and remote condition monitoring systems, sensors, alarms, PLCs, accelerometers, human-machine interface panels, etc. Now many are implementing wireless networks to monitor equipment globally at remote monitoring systems.
These modern systems are truly technological marvels and amaze even the most jaded technophiles. But we must be careful because the solutions we implement today are going to lead to the problems we must grapple with tomorrow.
Back 15 years ago when I first got active in the maintenance management industry, managers did not know what was going on in their business because they did not have any reports other than manual entries. Then we implemented a CMMS system, and they did not know what was going on in their business because they had more than 600 reports and over 200 computer-generated graphs.
Now forensic engineers, those who research major disasters, are discovering that many of the calamities were caused by faulty sensors or even ignored alarms due to alarm floods.
It’s similar to the situation where computer users have to deal with memorizing various passwords to get access to information available in databases, bank records and social media outlets. Since it is now so easy to automate alarm codes, sensors and tracking systems, it is becoming increasingly difficult to respond, as well as determine which critical issue to address. Also, many of these sensors are battery-controlled. When the battery dies, the alarm sends faulty or no information. Expired batteries are not easy to correct or detect from a remote location, and that may leave the facility vulnerable to potential emergencies.
To increase uptime, believe it or not, a major auto transmission manufacturer set up speakers to play irritating music to signal maintenance workers to fix the problem equipment. The company had more than 700 assets at this one facility. On top of all of the factory noise, about 20 work centers bellowed cacophonous sounds of various different types of songs. When I asked a maintenance technician how he liked this, his body repulsed at the mere mention of the music alarms and said, “You become numb and ignore it after a while.” And yet, the company can’t figure out why it experiences high turnover in the maintenance department.
Automation companies are recognizing the challenges and complexity of this process and are working to implement dashboard control systems where energy and equipment management systems can be made instantly by remote operations. These interfaces are being designed for each user and provide only the information needed at various levels. Also, virtual training programs are being created to condition workers to deal with abnormal failures and issues that normally occur but could have devastating results. Some companies are taking a page out of sports teams’ playbooks by filming outages, best practices and creating maintenance training tapes to help develop future workers.