Removing obstructions to your plant’s workflow streams

Plant operation and maintenance people routinely handle complex plant processes, yet many aren’t sure how to tackle moving plant information strategically across departments and locations.


Process manufacturers, power generators, and other plants have many flows of product moving through the production cycle. Those can be chemicals, oil, fuel, or something else. In any case, these products come in the plant in one form and leave in another with a higher value. But along with these product streams, certain information flows are just as important.

A plant’s work streams

A process plant represents a highly complex set of physical components, activities, and interdependent information. Among these items of information, there are three fundamental work streams. Defining these works streams is important as it allows identification and mapping of the information feeding each one, thus allowing effective navigation of each stream. Two work streams are well known, with major systems available to address them:

Maintenance management and work order processing—Fueled by information that helps plan and execute preventive and reactive maintenance activities, this information includes equipment details, tag information, and repair procedures. Information is typically maintained in a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS).

Plant operations and process control—These real-time control activities require a vast sea of data delivered by field devices to a plant’s digital control system. Once delivered, the control system uses this information along with plant operator input to command other field devices to support efficient and safe operation.

Three work streams: Most process, power and other plants are familiar with the maintenance management and process control work streams, but not all are aware of the other critical plant work stream: plant information asset management.But there is a third stream which plant personnel use every day, called the plant information asset stream, which is often not recognized, yet it is as important as the other two steams. In many plants, it’s not considered separate from the first two, when it reality is should be to create the most effective plant operating environment.

Plant information asset—This third work stream depends on a great deal of supporting information as each activity needs operating information (specifications, drawings, schematics, etc.), management of change documentation, procedures, training materials, and regulatory/licensing documentation. The list could go on, but the common element is it’s all information, and it has to be accessible somewhere and indexed so someone needing it can find it quickly.

Often information for this third work stream ends up spread across numerous repositories including servers, shared drives, USB sticks, CDs, paper, and all forms of personal computers. In many plants, there is no consistent or current view of data, and thus there are significant hindrances to plant efficiency, safety, and compliance.

This supporting information is not housed in a CMMS or a process control system, but instead needs its own repository, namely a plant document management system.

It’s got to be here somewhere

There are times when plant personnel have to hunt for some information asset such as an old email, a website link, or a product manual. It’s frustrating when this information is needed to execute a task and can’t be found. In the worst case, information needs to be located quickly to deal with an emergency, and its whereabouts are unknown.

Imagine you’ve had a chemical spill in your plant because a worker used an outdated procedure that had not moved through the normal management-of-change (MOC) process. This happened because there was an obstruction in the third stream, causing a failure in your plant’s information asset management systems.

What is the lesson learned over and over again from such situations? Having a consolidated set of easily and quickly accessible electronic information flowing through the third work stream is critical. And this information does not come from the CMMS or process control system, but rather through a document management system.

Death, taxes, and regulations–true for every industry

Let’s look at a routine activity among energy and engineering customers common to many industries governed by regulations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) MOC process instigates action regarding many sets of information and tasks. For virtually every activity performed in a plant dealing with safety related systems, one needs to propose, document, implement, verify, and update documentation—and then advise personnel in order to adhere to OSHA regulations and maintain a safe work environment.

The requisite information to support the third work stream includes all those different kinds of data and documentation mentioned earlier, but it is often scattered across many places and platforms, paper and digital. Finding something when it is needed most can be a challenge.

A real-life example

Here’s a typical task process plants deal with on a regular basis: a valve is leaking and needs to be replaced. The CMMS alerts the maintenance supervisor to allocate repair time, and a contractor technician is called on site to implement the repair. It all sounds routine, right?

Unfortunately, the technician has no access to electronic documents detailing the current valve configuration schematic and specification. All he has is an old hard copy of a repair manual. Current schematics for the plant are at a different location, too far away to transport to the work site on time.

Nonetheless, the work gets completed, and the CMMS documents an update was made. The job is done, right? Well, no. These useful and critical bits of procedural information never made it to the other work streams:

• The newer valve model has a slightly different threshold pressure point than the former valve used in this service
• The contractor technician learned, through trial and error, that two undocumented steps are required before the valve can be installed, otherwise it won’t function properly, and,
• The change was never communicated to plant operators for review and sign-off, and no advisement or training was completed regarding the changed operating procedure, all of which is typically required by OSHA.

Imagine the safety hazard of running an oil refinery with the wrong valve pressure point information, not to mention the potential regulatory fines and subsequent maintenance issues lurking in this scenario.

Plant operators thought they were maintaining the plant. They thought the CMMS was enough to guide their efforts. But it takes knowing what information is flowing through your organization and how it interacts with your critical work streams before safety can be improved.

And to make an important point again, it is critical to have a consolidated set of electronic information flowing through the third work stream to manage the plant information asset, and this is not the CMMS or process control system, but rather a document management system.

Managing the third work stream

How does a plant implement a document management system to create and control the third work stream?

It’s helpful first to understand your plant’s position in the information maturity spectrum, and a good starting point is to evaluate your situation on four points which are explained in greater detail in other resources:

1. Get your content under control
2. Ensure optimal access to content
3. Manage change with a structured approach, and,
4. Coordinate information with other business applications.

Regardless of your stage, make sure no category of information is hidden from those who need it for safe and successful plant operations. Most importantly, align your applications and systems to span all three work streams and their related information sets. This will happen naturally as your plant progresses from one stage to another, finally reaching a point where all needed information is quickly and easily accessible. The main tool used to progress from one stage to another is a document management system as this is where all content is stored, accessed, managed and shared with other applications in the first two work streams, the CMMS and the plant’s control system.

Joe Morray is senior director of the worldwide energy and engineering practice at EMC Information Intelligence Group.

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