With so much at stake, why is so little attention given to monitoring?


Spend enough time as a facilities manager or a maintenance staff member, and you’re sure to experience your fair share of facility emergencies. Once the panic wears off, the sudden tripping of a circuit breaker or the untimely death of a motor inevitably lead to a frantic scramble to find out why it happened and how to fix it. Cooler heads always prevail, though, and closer inspection often reveals these events to be the result of poor information management, not unavoidable circumstances. Rarely are events so isolated or sudden that they can’t be predicted with the appropriate data.

The cost to predict and prevent these events is a small fraction of the cost of even one occurrence. Waiting until after an incident to implement power monitoring can be very costly. Without online monitoring capabilities, warning signs often go left undetected until product flaws begin to appear and a subsequent reverse investigation leads to the root cause.

Smart businesses concerned about reliability won’t overlook the wealth of opportunities to protect their processes. Members of the medical community have it right—they realize that if the patient is to survive, monitoring needs to be first on the list. The advent of the Internet provides an effective channel for the timely flow of information to the professionals capable of addressing the threats. This data can prevent waste and ensure efficient use of facilities and their processes. What started as local data acquisition has evolved into information gathering with higher levels of system intelligence at stages closer to the point of data collection.

Today’s facilities managers expect high performance from their equipment control and monitoring systems. This means information-rich, low-cost monitoring solutions that are scalable with short ROI cycles. The use of proprietary client server-based software in a LAN application is quickly being replaced by browser-based applications with local Web servers as well as individual intelligent devices with Web page capabilities. Small configurable servers networked together provide the backbone of plant floor information systems. These devices may be dedicated to particular types of information like energy and process points and networked to provide combinations of information that are completely user definable. This enables the facility manager to group the information in ways that make sense to him, with all of the relevant pieces seamlessly interconnected.

An illustration of this might be an electrical distribution system for a particular manufacturing plant where access to a industrially hardened “brick” PC would give the operator Internet access to several things, including (only three of the following):

  • Service entrance electrical parameters indicate capacity or power quality conditions.

  • Downstream distribution point capacity or power quality (MCC, bus duct, distribution panel, system control panels, or even individual loads such as critical motors) TVSS status

  • Alarm annunciation and historical archiving

  • CAD power one-line diagrams

  • Equipment manufacturer’s manuals in PDF format

  • PLC program documentation for control systems

  • Energy usage information

  • Photos of system or components

  • Automated reports with embedded trend graphs

  • Infrared or vibration reports

Facilities managers can identify sources of imbalance and voltage drop by reviewing several layers of data and extracting the necessary information. By meaningfully grouping this information, a monitoring system can facilitate fast resolution of conditions that might threaten the process. Early detection and fast information access equal loss prevention in terms of equipment damage and downtime, both of which have significant financial consequences.

Facility support personnel can now be notified about problems and retrieve valuable troubleshooting information without having to travel to the site. Mini industrial process controllers (PCs), or “information nodes,” are equipped with Web server and e-mail capabilities that permit the system to notify users via pages, cell phones, and PDAs when a power quality event occurs. Together, these information nodes form a distributed intelligence network that continues to function even if one becomes inoperative. This can eliminate the need for massive central servers with unmanageably large databases that require dedicated, expensive hardware and the attention of dedicated IT personnel. Additionally, some stand-alone controllers and instruments have on-board Ethernet communications for display of pre-configured Web pages that display process values. The information collected and distributed by monitoring systems can help maintenance personnel establish a plan of action and implement it. Control functions can also be accessed through the Web to initiate remedial actions such as switching to an alternate pump.

All information and control actions must be adequately secured through protection such as multi-level passwording. Engineering expertise can be leveraged over the entire enterprise, avoiding delays and costs associated with travel. All of this occurs on a low-cost global basis. With this worldwide window into critical subsystems, design performance can be verified and business partners can share best practices.

The basic components of an Internet monitoring system (Fig. 1) are servers; network data storage devices, which can provide extended historical archiving if desired; data generators like transducers, PLCs, digital meters, and other intelligent devices; network connections; and software tools.

However, servers are the most important component. They’re also the most pivotal, providing functions like Web and e-mail access, software hosting, and short-term log and alarm archiving. By enabling serial communications, they allow existing devices to move their data to a platform with Internet access.

For years, several devices had serial ports for information exchange, but many remained untapped for information purposes; proprietary Expensive software interfaces require training, upgrades, and licensing. Web browsers can replace those programs and allow users to access their monitoring information at a much lower cost and from anywhere. Industrial PC controllers are available with either Windows or Linux operating systems, presenting owners with a wide variety of applications software. In addition, custom applications are made easier with available development tools. This adds up to very flexible system configuration, scalability, lower deployment costs, and quicker project implementation. Distributed intelligence allows application-specific software to be combined into a larger system without redevelopment. Interconnection can be accomplished with or without data exchange between subsystems.

Besides the server, the other crucial component is the locally-resident software, which filters the data into relevant information. The software will compare the data with established corporate guidelines or recognized national engineering standards. This translated data is then made available in meaningful reports to responsible parties. The key to cost-effective monitoring is to discard irrelevant data and retain only useful information.

Monitoring systems can be developed using appropriate software and hardware “building blocks,” allowing users to implement and expand them without backtracking. It’s simple and inexpensive to start small and demonstrate the value of monitoring on a reduced scale. This can avoid the steep uphill battle many face for significant capitol projects. Often this can be done within existing maintenance spending limits. As an example, the software and hardware components for a simple monitoring system can cost as little as $2,400 including configuration for five analog signals and can log 40,000 time/date stamped records. A comprehensive facility system can be staged to accommodate corporate budgeting priorities and timing.

Due to the recent explosion of hardware and software geared toward Internet access, all of the components are available to begin reaping increased productivity through expedited resolution of process variable irregularities. These subsystems that feed into production are no less ingredients in the product than other materials directly incorporated in the manufactured item. These unprecedented communications and monitoring options are no doubt part of the formula for successful facility management now and in the future.

Votaw, CPQ, is vice president of Votaw Electric, Inc., in Fort Wayne, Ind. For more information, visit his Web site at www.efacility.net or e-mail him at mvotaw@efacility.net