Digitally Streamline Manual Procedures & Automated Processes

7 Min Read
Image courtesy of NovaTech

For powder and bulk solids processors today, standard operating procedures (SOPs) for startup/shutdown, material loading/unloading, line switchovers, clean-in-place, maintenance preparation, and other tasks are still completed manually, using paper-based systems.

Unfortunately, this creates a significant disconnect between equipment operators and the rest of the automated process. Manual SOPs are completed without coordination with existing control systems and information is not shared in real-time with Historians, LIMS, and enterprise-wide systems. When this is the case, process improvement directors, executives, and other key stakeholders are robbed of real-time visibility into the production environment along with key analytics that could be used for process improvement.

To cost-effectively handle such issues, we discuss the advantages of digitally transforming manual procedures to eliminate the divide between operators and automated processes with Chris Kourliouros, VP of product marketing at NovaTech LLC Process Div., which specializes in continuous control system architecture.

Q: Why is it critical for powder and bulk solids processors to digitally transform manual procedures today?

A: We have all these productivity tools that make us more efficient in our jobs, yet if you go into the manufacturing facilities of some of the biggest powder and bulk solids processors in the world, they are still using paper and pen to check off required procedures. This creates a digital “blind spot” in the organization because the worker and the existing systems are not connected and are not communicating with each other.

But this is not just a gap in the sharing of digital information. Paper-based SOPs that are inaccessible, poorly authored, not properly followed, not updated regularly, not based on best practices, not coordinated with control functions, and not standardized across facilities can lead to severe consequences. This can include process interruptions, equipment damage and even injury.

Given the stakes – coupled with initiatives such as Industry 4.0 to further increase the level of automation at plants – many processors are now seeking ways to transform manual, paper-based SOPs into interactive, digital documents that are fully integrated and synchronized with existing plant control and other enterprise computing systems. In doing so, processors expect a variety of benefits in plant safety, quality, and efficiency.

Q: How can taking such a digital approach enhance powder and bulk solids processing safety and quality, as well as production data?

A: When it comes to safety, eliminating the human error that can occur using paper-based SOPs is crucial. According to ARC industry reports, human error is the primary cause in 42% of abnormal events, and a secondary contributing cause in more than 65% of the cases. Human error causes more financial losses and unscheduled shutdowns or slowdowns than any other root cause. The financial losses stemming from a single incident can exceed $75 million, according to professional services firm, Marsh & McLennan, to say nothing of the risks to plant personnel.

The digital approach enables plants to keep procedures clear, compliant, and up-to-date, and reduces the likelihood that human error triggers abnormal events that could compromise worker safety. Digital, connected SOPs are also a more effective way to transfer industry know-how across generations and geography.

From a quality and efficiency perspective, ensuring operators carry out up-to-date SOPs also has a direct impact on process and product quality, while minimizing scrap, waste, and the need to troubleshoot.

A more integrated digital approach also allows top management access to superior analytics. Industrial analytics can not only help reduce costs but also drive future revenue growth when used to provide insight into upgrading existing products, changing the business model of existing products, and creating new business models.

Q: How should powder processors successfully approach the digital transformation of manual procedures?

A: Although there are a number of products that can be used to generate digital SOPs and store them electronically (paper-on-glass), few have the interconnectivity to facilitate real-time interaction between the executing SOPs and the plant control system. Some DCS providers are also offering proprietary solutions, but digital SOPs should ideally be flexible, centralized and designed to communicate with any connected system.

A platform independent architecture utilizing open standards and protocols enables machines and operators to better collaborate. In this vein, the ability to execute procedures can make it possible to connect with key control systems to collect information and coordinate actions, embedding scripts can extend functionality with logic including accessing real-time information from other databases and systems. This approach provides an equipment operator with all the relevant information needed to complete work efficiently and can be easier and more intuitive to use.

Q: Would you give an example of how digitally transforming manual procedures can work for powder processors?

A: One example is Augmented Manual Procedures (AMP) from NovaTech, a software that ensures accurate SOP execution, along with validation of manual tasks, and comprehensive information capture/sharing.

NovaTech AMP software converts paper-based SOPs into a digital format, capable of operating on a wide range of hardware such as smartphones, PCs, and tablets. The information is displayed as an operator-friendly checklist, and accessories such as bar coders or markers can be integrated. Completed tasks are self-auditing and timestamped for future reference and compliance reporting.

In the field, manual procedures are linked via the operator’s interface on a mobile or stationary device to the process control platform through software that enables bidirectional communication regarding equipment status and task completion.

Once the SOPs are in a digital format, they are much easier to update, streamline, and standardize across the organization. Too often, plant A does things one way and plant B another way, even when using the same machinery. There are so many variables and nuances that many large companies struggle to standardize procedures across multiple locations; they need tools where comments and other feedback loops can help track best practices to optimize operations and drive continuous improvements.

Q: Can you give an example of how a processor benefitted from this approach in the field?

A: One of the companies utilizing AMP is Praxair, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Linde plc, a leading industrial gas company in North and South America, and one of the largest worldwide. The Fortune 300 company produces, sells, and distributes atmospheric, process, and specialty gases, and high-performance surface coatings from more than 800 plants worldwide, with thousands of smaller stations – each with its own unique SOPs.

Praxair was looking to shed the load manually and physically from its operators and prevent potential problems during equipment startups and shutdowns, maintenance, and complex operational rounds.  

Among the challenges for Praxair, was that traditional offline SOPs made data inaccessible to analytics, which severely reduced corporate visibility into internal operations. Also, with traditional SOPs, there was no integration with the DCS, no rigid authentic and version control, and no archival record-keeping “historian.”

The company’s Business Process Improvement team voiced concerns over two major “disconnects.” They wanted to review procedures to identify ways to speed equipment startup and they wanted facilities to share procedural information and learn best practices from one another, a task more easily accomplished in electronic format.

To do this, the Business Process Improvement team sought software with multimedia support in the field to provide access to images, video, QR codes, etc. In addition, the team wanted to support portable or wearable devices, which will play an increasingly important role on factory floors of the future.

Finally, the company felt interconnecting manual work execution with process, batch and state-based control systems could provide an additional level of validation by automatically checking to see if certain required operations are performed.

For example, plant safety and efficiency can be improved by automating lower value monotonous tasks as well as critical tasks, such as ensuring a machine’s valve is closed before moving forward to the next step. Because this approach communicates with the control system, it can prompt the control system to close the valve, providing a safeguard to human error and enabling operators to execute work in harmony with an automated control strategy.

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About the Author(s)

Powder Bulk Solids Staff

Established in 1983, Powder & Bulk Solids (PBS) serves industries that process, handle, and package dry particulate matter, including the food, chemical, and pharmaceutical markets.

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