Understanding the automation knowledge crises

When we talk of the so-called "knowledge crisis" in the process industries today, we automatically gravitate toward discussion about the retirement of the baby boomer generation and the loss of practical knowledge associated with that.

For example, one American refining company claims to have lost 2,500 man-years of practical knowledge in a single year when 100 of their process operators retired. Australia is no different.

In fact, Australia’s manufacturing sector has an older workforce than any of its other economic sectors with more than 40 per cent of the workforce exceeding 45 years of age.

Whilst the aging workforce is a significant concern, other factors that are not as commonly discussed further exacerbate the crisis.

As it relates to automation, the size, complexity, and interoperability of modern automation systems has increased much more quickly than human ability to document and understand them.

For many years now, the number of installed measurements in process automation has increased as the cost of sensors has decreased. As the number of measurements has increased, new software applications that leverage those measurements have also increased.

In fact, there is a sort of autocatalytic relationship between the two: lower-cost measurements enabling the justification of more applications; and more applications driving the need for more measurements. The result is larger and more complex automation systems.

More complex systems

Not only are individual automation systems becoming larger and more complex, they are increasingly being integrated with each other to facilitate interoperability requirements.

For example, it is very common for a signal brought into a Safety Instrumented System (SIS) to also be used in applications and operating displays within the Distributed Control System (DCS), as well as to be archived by the plant historian.

While the vendors for each of these systems manage the changes to their own databases, none do so across the boundaries between systems, and in many cases, human knowledge is the only record of the integration.

An example of this occurred at a North American Petrochemical plant, where plant personnel were conducting a routine test of an interlock in a Safety Instrumented System (SIS).

As provided for in the procedure, they bypassed the output of the SIS so that when they exercised the logic to test it, the valve would not actually trip.

However, they were unaware that a well-intentioned individual had added some operator startup assistance logic in the Distributed Control System (DCS) designed to sense when that interlock tripped in the SIS and place all the controllers on the unit in manual and their outputs at 0 per cent.

Because the startup assistance logic was undocumented, it was not disabled prior to the test, and the result was that it shut the unit down and a major flaring event occurred. The plant not only lost production during the shutdown, but incurred environmental fines as well.

The lesson in this example is that undocumented and unapproved changes to automation systems pose a significant risk to plant operations.

Of significant concern is that automation modifications often go undocumented, and many go unapproved. Exacerbating this problem further is the fact that these types of configuration modifications occur regularly.

The complexity of modern automation systems has increased much more quickly than human ability to document and understand them.

Automation systems are important tools for process improvement and their configurations are continually modified as part of normal plant operation.

Every configuration parameter change is the product of the knowledge and thought processes of the plant’s automation and control professionals, and thus represents an element of practical knowledge about the plant.

As such, automation system databases over time archive a tremendous amount of the process knowledge of humans.

When we recently asked our customers with what frequency they make changes to their automation systems, 37 per cent of the respondents claimed that automation professionals make daily changes to their automation systems, while an additional 35 per cent claimed changes were made at least weekly.

In addition, 65 per cent of those participating in our survey admitted that their facility has experienced incidents and/ or process upsets due to modifications to their automation systems.

We also asked the question "Do automation system modifications currently require a Management of Change (MOC) process at your facility?"

Fifty-three percent of respondents said that it always did, forty-seven percent replied that it sometimes did, and no one responded that it never did.

The fact that nearly half the respondents employ an MOC process only sometimes, and that 65 per cent of the same respondents reported experiencing incidents and process upsets resulting from automation modifications, illustrates the potential for future incidents and process upsets due to reliance upon individual recall of a single configuration change among the hundreds or thousands that are made over their career.

Enabling knowledge capture

Additionally, due to the aging workforce, those individuals will eventually retire and take this knowledge with them unless a means of capturing their knowledge is employed.

The solution to the above problems must take a number of factors into account. First, it must detect and document all modifications to your automation systems. It must provide a mechanism for ensuring that all modifications are authorised to mitigate the risks that undocumented and potentially malicious changes carry.

It should provide a graphical interface that presents your automation systems as they currently exist rather than as they were originally built. In addition, it should document full signal genealogies and integration among systems.

All of this information must be easily accessible or plant personnel will simply not use it. A solution containing all of these items will ensure that the practical knowledge invested in your automation systems all always be available for future generations.

There is no single solution that will provide the capture and recall of the vast amounts of practical knowledge that companies will lose as baby boomers retire. Instead, multiple solutions targeting specific aspects of knowledge retention are much more likely to yield successful results as they will be more relevant to the users of that knowledge.

Managing change

Software alone will never be able to solve all the problems arising from the Automation Knowledge Crisis, but with solutions such as Integrity Software from PAS, the automation systems become much more manageable.

Integrity, for example, documents the configurations of more than fifty different automation systems and the changes made to them, making the web-enabled application able to collect data from multiple plant sites and display it anywhere on the company IT network.

Integrity iMOC, a module of Integrity, is an intelligent Management of Change (MOC) solution specifically designed for automation.

It makes managing changes to automation systems easy by creation of custom Management of Change workflows, identification of all signal connections related to a Management of Change case, the ability to push approvals to the appropriate approver, and full reconciliation of changes to the specific Management of Change cases that authorised them.

[Chris Lyden is President, PAS.]

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