One glance at your morning newspaper or on the evening news on any given day, and you’ll find a dose of troubling news within today’s global manufacturing industry.

It could be one of many things: a fire in a refinery, a major chemical spill, an evacuation after a gas leak, numerous workers injured or killed. In manufacturing, especially in the chemical, oil & gas and energy-based process industries, the smallest abnormal situation can trigger a series of events that can ultimately lead to disaster if they are not contained quickly.

In the discrete arena the danger is not as explosive, but hiding under the hood of an automotive recall is a potential component failure that could cause a serious accident — an issue that automakers are dealing with currently. As a result, the manufacturing industry as a whole is on a safety-driven mission.

During a recent conversation with an instrumentation and controls manager at an energy company, the question was asked: “Will we ever see a day when there are no explosions in the plant?” The goal, of course, he said, is to reach zero incidents. And work is being done to ensure quality and safety are engineered into production. But there are some uncontrollable aspects of any process: people.

The conversation shifted to the airline industry, as an example. It is a regulated industry, but progress is driven by the need for safety with a focus on product quality in an effort to curtail the amount of plane crashes. Over the years, by increasing aircraft reliability, there have been fewer accidents than just a few years ago. In 2009, there were twenty three commercial airline incidents. Compare that with just twelve incidents in 2013.

It’s a step in the right direction. But back to the question at hand: Will we ever see a day when there are no explosions in the plant? No faulty ignitions in cars? No plane crashes? Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed answer because what’s left is the reliability of the people behind the process — whether it be an airline pilot, a control system operator or a mechanic out in the field.

What needs to be done today is to find ways to help people make the best decisions in the moment. It starts, ironically, by enlisting the help of the people on the front line including the pilots, the control system operator and the mechanic. Far too often, an engineer is sitting in the backroom creating plant floor programs that are perfect from a process perspective, but are not practical when it comes to real-world situations. This needs to change.

New innovations in human machine interface (HMI) are underway, using simple graphics and carefully placed colors to provide pattern recognition to control operators. But in order to reveal accurate information, it must first be created within the process.

So gather everyone — not just the engineers — and huddle around the business process management (BPM) models to identify what is the most important information to be acknowledge in the event of an abnormal situation, as well as how and to whom it should be delivered. The point is to streamline the right information to the right person. Not overwhelm individuals with innocuous alarms.

People, when armed with the right information, will make the right decisions. But we need to use technology strategically to create a synergistic balance between machine and man. When that happens, we will be that much closer to zero incidents in any manufacturing environment.


About the Author

Tom Comstock has been in the manufacturing industry for more than 20 years, so chances are that you have either met him at an event, worked with him at an MES company or at least heard of him. With all his knowledge and degrees, he usually has something meaningful to say about the state of the industry or new trends transforming manufacturing strategies.