Hidden figures: is critical alarm management fuelling a productivity gap in UK manufacturing?
New year marks the start of the Oscars season, so what better time to review the blockbuster dramas shaping UK industry. The Favourite? Productivity. Weak productivity has long been an Inconvenient Truth for British business, with data consistently showing that UK output lags behind many advanced economies. The government’s Industrial Strategy outlines clear goals to boost productivity, urging companies to take advantage of ground-breaking technological advances to drive improvements. Those advances are fuelling a ubiquitous focus on digital transformation as the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ steals the Spotlight. ‘Industry 4.0’ – characterised by new technologies that enable automation, data exchange and machine-to-machine communication – is billed as the answer to manufacturing’s productivity challenge.
The potential opportunities are great. But as industry ponders headline innovation like Artificial Intelligence and IoT, some companies might be missing a trick. Affordable, everyday technology that automates processes to stimulate rapid productivity gains is, in some organisations, being overlooked. It’s time to seek Atonement.
The management of alarms, both minor and critical, is a well-known driver of productivity in production environments. When a machine malfunctions or a lone worker falls, a company’s ability to react quickly will shape the scale of the business impact. The slightest downtime can kill output and ramp up costs. A total shutdown – which on some production lines can automatically occur if a problem isn’t rectified within 20 minutes – is the Darkest Hour.
In recent years, companies have strengthened their alarm management capabilities, with many investing in sophisticated control centres or Alarm Receiving Centres (ARCs) to monitor operations in real time and activate response. Unfortunately, in some cases, the measures taken contain hidden inefficiencies that can inadvertently undermine attempts to improve productivity. Often, centralised solutions focus heavily on operational visibility and detection but don’t do enough to accelerate post-alert response. In these instances, automation is only built into the first half of the process.
For example, SCADA technology or Building Management Systems – which run in the background of many businesses to monitor activity – are configured to automate critical alarms when they detect an issue. But often, once that alert has been acknowledged in the control room, response becomes a manual process. As a result, escalation is a human-led activity, encountering all the common challenges of identifying, contacting and (crucially) engaging the most appropriate engineer. In certain circumstances, it requires operators to have specialist knowledge to avoid incidents being misinterpreted, miscommunicated or Lost in Translation. The whole process has the potential to cascade into a Series of Unfortunate Events. Without question, human-activated escalation costs time, slows down incident resolution and threatens productivity.
The Blind Side
It’s a popular misconception that upscaling a control room and improving visibility means the productivity challenges inherent with critical alarms are solved. They aren’t. Organisations that don’t harness automation throughout the process haven’t resolved their problems, they’ve quietly exacerbated them. Detecting an issue is one thing, but if you cannot respond effectively, visibility counts for nothing.
In fact, before an alert even reaches the response stage, an earlier challenge exists. Making the distinction between a minor and a critical alert is hugely important, but in busy control room environments it’s incredibly difficult. Yet the clock is forever ticking. Minor alerts are naturally less time sensitive but critical alarms can have grave consequences if they’re not handled with urgency. Fundamentally, critical incidents typically require a response from a skilled engineer – so why not go straight to source and automate the alert directly to the most appropriate resource? Our research shows that almost three quarters (73%) of manufacturing companies don’t send critical alerts directly to a qualified engineer. The approach inevitably creates inefficiencies that can severely dent productivity. It’s entirely avoidable.
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The diverse range of potential incidents across production plants means a one-size-fits-all solution to alarm management is neither possible nor sensible. Despite this, a surprising number of organisations adopt the same processes irrespective of the nature of the alert. Consequently, control room operators – who in some industries can experience up to 1,500 alerts a day – can easily be blindsided by a minor alert and miss a major incident.
Organisations must do all they can to maximise their workforce and minimise the impact of machine failure or injury. For many, this requires a wholesale rethink of their alarm management strategies. In the Industry 4.0 era, technology has evolved to give businesses unprecedented opportunities to solve the productivity conundrum. However, on its own, technology is rarely sufficient; it’s often the processes behind it that determine its effectiveness. So how can you make it As Good As It Gets?
The smart application of mobile technology provides a simple, affordable solution. Although mobile tech may seem too familiar to be considered Industry 4.0 innovation, when it works in tandem with structured processes that reflect a business’s real-world operations, it can transform the management of critical alarms and eliminate inefficiency.
With informed process mapping, solutions can be configured to automate specific alerts directly to the mobile devices of the most qualified engineers. This removes time from the process, allowing you to activate an immediate response rather than journey through a long, human process of identifying, contacting and engaging responders. In the traditional model, engineers are rarely available immediately – they may not even answer their phone. When this happens, operators are forced to restart the process of identifying/contacting an alternative resource, all of which takes more time. The direct approach eliminates avoidable time-lapses.
End-to-end automation allows organisations to rethink operational planning to give operators and engineers The Help they need. For example, if responsibility for handling minor alerts rests with operators and critical alarms are better directed, the potential productivity gains could be significant. Those critical alerts can still be flagged to the control room to give operators assurance that incidents have been escalated and actioned, but automated communication directly with engineers provides the best chance of handling urgent incidents quickly and effectively. The mobile delivery mechanism also enables documentation to be sent directly to engineers to help assist fault diagnostics. This could, for example, include a step-by-step guide or a troubleshooting app that can be accessed on their smartphone. This granular information empowers engineers, allowing companies to broaden distribution of alert to a wider team, rather than limit specific alerts to individual specialists.
The theory of everything
The opportunity to increase productivity using simple mobile tech is real. However, technology is just one half of the solution. To optimise it, organisations are best to partner with specialist telecoms companies that know how to design bespoke automated solutions. The most effective partners will understand the nuances of diverse production environments and will work with you to identify your real-world challenges to map solutions that reflect your needs.
In the awards season, automating your critical alerts won’t win you an Oscar. But it will give you the Best Picture of what’s going on in your organisation to help you secure the major prize: productivity.