Better Tools Benefit Alarms

Sept. 13, 2013
Vendors Offer New Products to Help Streamline Workflow After an Alarm Triggers
About the Author

After working as a semiconductor process engineer, Hank Hogan hung up his cleanroom suit and now writes about process control and other technologies from Austin.

For alarm tools, the trends are anything but alarming. Vendors are offering products that more closely adhere to new standards, are more intelligent and allow the analysis needed to weed out false alarms. Their solutions can even help streamline the workflow that happens after an alarm triggers.

Take GE Intelligent Platforms, which earlier this year announced its Real-Time Operational Intelligence initiative with a focus on easy-to-use, mobile interfaces. This extension of the long-running trend toward pushing alarms out to where the data is needed has a twist. The GE product recognizes that a mobile workforce contains data that can be exploited. Specifically, there are services that pinpoint the location of a device — and presumably its owner. That can be an asset in a large plant.

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"We have geointelligence built into the solution, so it knows who's nearest to what asset. Those views change based on who is in the best position to act," says Prasad Pai, global manager for the automation software group at GE Intelligent Platforms.

He adds that most vendors are moving to support ISA 18.2 and other alarm-related standards. GE takes this a step further, moving from a simpler alarm system to one that includes some sort of intelligence and control.

For example, the company's solution includes software that can extract why a particular set of alarms is occurring. There could be a leaking tank, and that one event might trigger a dozen separate alarms. An experienced operator may know this, but an inexperienced one easily might be overwhelmed.

Once it has some collected history to work with, the software can extract the root cause for an alarm cascade. That could significantly shorten what might otherwise be a long troubleshooting process. It also should help all operators react the same way in a given situation. "Our alarm system includes tools to reduce the burden on operators," says Alan Cone, HMI marketing manager at Siemens Industry. The system includes configuration options that enable setting up parent-child alarms. Low flow in a pipe could trigger 10 other alarms, for example, and the system has the means to reduce this cascade to something manageable.

"Instead of having all 10 of them register, it will let me just register the first one," Cone says. "So you can set up hierarchies like that, and say these alarms take precedence."


Other tools allow analysis of alarm history, with this capability being expanded in the company’s latest offering, WinCC V7.2. Looking at historical data makes it easier to distinguish between those alarms that occur because equipment is faulty and those alarms that signal a real process problem.

For more immediate analysis, Siemens software allows the color coding of columns. Thus, an operator is not presented with a screen of rows and columns full of alarm data, but instead can see information in a way that highlights what is important.

A final example of the direction in which alarm tools might be heading comes from Rockwell Automation. The company's latest offering, FactoryTalk View Site Edition 7.0, includes an enhancement to the FactoryTalk Alarms and Events subsystem that brings it into full alignment with ISA 18.2.

What was added is called the "shelved state," says Tony Carrara, product manager for the product. The issue addressed by this particular part of the 18.2 standard was that, once an alarm is suppressed in an HMI, it stays suppressed until manually reinstated. The standard says this is a no-no. Thus, Rockwell’s solution now only allows an alarm to be shelved for a maximum period of time. Once that time expires, the alarm again will be visible to the operator. An example of when this might be used is when a sensor is malfunctioning. The resulting alarms can be shelved for the time it takes to repair the sensor.

Another advance addresses the fact that many organizations have a specific set of procedures that must be followed when a given alarm occurs. The FactoryTalk Alarms and Events subsystem allows a command to be associated with an alarm, simplifying workflows by enabling an automatic display of what must be done.

Speaking of how operators might benefit from this, Carrara says, "They can double click on that alarm and it will perform a command like 'Execute a script' or ‘Show me a PDF file’ or take me to exactly where I need to be in the HMI."