Hidden Figures: Is Critical Alarm Management Fuelling a Productivity Gap in UK Manufacturing?

‘Industry 4.0’ – characterised by new technologies that enable automation, data exchange and machine-to-machine communication – is billed as being the answer to manufacturing’s productivity challenge. The potential opportunities are great, but as industry moguls ponder headline innovations like Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things, some companies might well be missing a trick. Klaus Allion takes up the story.

Weak productivity has long been an inconvenient truth for British business, with data consistently showing that the UK’s manufacturing output often lags behind that of many other advanced economies. The Government’s Industrial Strategy outlines clear goals designed to boost productivity, urging companies to take advantage of groundbreaking technological advances that will drive improvements. Those advances are fuelling a ubiquitous focus on digital transformation as the so-called ‘fourth industrial revolution’ steals the spotlight.

Affordable and everyday technology that automates processes to stimulate rapid productivity gains is, in some organisations, being overlooked. Put simply, it’s time to seek atonement.

Management of alarms

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 of all.

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 really 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. 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.

Exacerbating the problem

It’s a popular misconception that upscaling a Control Room and improving visibility means the productivity challenges inherent with critical alarms are solved. They’re not. Organisations that don’t harness automation throughout the process haven’t resolved their problems. Rather, they’ve quietly exacerbated them. Detecting an issue is one thing, but if you cannot respond effectively, it must be said that 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%, in fact) of manufacturing companies don’t send critical alerts directly to a qualified engineer. That approach inevitably creates inefficiencies that can severely dent productivity. It’s a scenario that’s entirely avoidable.

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 each day – can easily be blindsided by a minor alert and miss a major incident.

Rethinking the strategy

Organisations must do all they can to maximise the potential and skills of 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 and 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’ 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 then engaging with responders.

Klaus Allion

Klaus Allion

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 assurances 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 with fault diagnostics. This could, for example, include a step-by-step guide or a troubleshooting app that can be accessed on their smart phone. Such granular information empowers engineers, allowing companies to broaden the distribution of alerts to a wider team rather than limit specific alerts to individual specialists.

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 would do well 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 work with you to identify your real-world challenges and map solutions that reflect your needs.

Automating your critical alerts will not 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.

Klaus Allion is Managing Director at ANT Telecom

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

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