Automate Manual Inspection Rounds

 Sometimes technologies are adopted for their own sake, but it is much better when an advance as important as digital transformation begins by solving a problem.

Digital transformation has been used to solve countless problems and improve all manner of operations, but let’s concentrate on one. My article in the May 2020 issue of Chemical Processing, Automate Manual Inspection Rounds, focuses on how companies use their internal personnel resources, and how they can get more from those people through improvements in automation.

Highly skilled and increasingly valuable plant personnel often must perform these mundane and repetitive tasks, moving through the site to check the status of instruments and assets, and documenting their findings using pen and paper. These results then get manually entered into some type of maintenance management system, a process prone to data entry errors. Applying digital tools to automate manual rounds frees these personnel to do higher level tasks such as analyzing collected data to improve operations.

Some people see digital transformation as a means to replace people, but in reality, it provides opportunities to upskill your operators and technicians, and then put them to work doing higher-value tasks. It also reduces their exposure to potentially hazardous situations by reducing the amount of time they may have to spend in the plant. So how does digital transformation solve the manual rounds question? Sensors installed on equipment assets capture data rather than human beings.

Today, using wireless instead of wired instrumentation to gather and transmit data can cut costs and time for connecting each point by up to 75%. Wireless instrumentation enables plants to automate most manual rounds, enabling data gathering even for lower value and less critical assets that never could justify traditional signal wiring. High quality data from the field allow assets to effectively and continually signal their status. With such inputs, analytics can provide decision support, enabling data-driven work practices and improved efficiency.

So there’s the critical trade-off: A plant uses a very costly and scarce asset—people—to do these tasks because management thinks it’s too expensive to add sensors. With a little analysis, this proves to be a false economy, particularly if considered in light of how inexpensive it is now to deploy sensors using WirelessHART networks. A case-in-point, consider monitoring pressure relief valves (PRVs) using Emerson’s Rosemount 708 Wireless Acoustic Transmitter.

PRVs prevent overpressure conditions but, when actuated, may release hazardous pollutants into the nearby area. A plant must report these releases to the appropriate regulatory agency. If detection depends on a visible telltale signal, like a sock, that is inspected every eight hours, then the agency might assume the release lasted for eight hours. In contrast, an acoustic wireless transmitter can provide 8-sec. update rates with long battery life, dramatically improving the timeliness of release reporting while also confirming the PRV has reseated and the release has stopped.

This is only one example of how a simple sensor, working with as the data collection and analysis platform, can result in an substantial improvement. This type of installation performs monitoring, continuously, 24/7—rather than waiting for operators to find a problem—if they’re even aware something untoward is happening.

So where are you still depending on manual rounds to find problems before they escalate into something bigger, more damaging, and more expensive? Where could you benefit from continuous monitoring?

Let’s hear about your situation. How did you answer the questions just asked? Have you been successful with periodic manual measurements, or has it been haphazard?