Behind the dashboard

Visual systems that allow technicians, engineers and managers to quickly ascertain the status of industrial equipment are very real, and on their way to a plant near you.

By Paul Studebaker, CMRP, Editor in Chief

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Who hasn’t fantasized about being in control – able to see what people are doing, how equipment is performing, where problems are holding you back – in real time, from a position of command, comfort and convenience? Well, the bridge of the starship Enterprise still exists only in the imagination, but visual systems that allow technicians, engineers and managers to quickly ascertain the status of industrial equipment are very real, and on their way to a plant near you.

Dashboards accept data from disparate sources, make agreed-upon calculations and present the resulting information as individually customizable, easily scanned displays.

Data may be drawn from finance, maintenance, manufacturing, supply chain management, workforce management, customer relationship management or other sources. Indicators are typically color-coded green, yellow or red to indicate status at a glance, and information may be many layers deep, allowing users to drill down from a trouble indicator to details about the plant, line, machine, component or individual employee involved.
Only a few years ago, the concept of displaying in detail the condition of a single complex plant, let alone the many facilities of a global enterprise, was as farfetched as Spock’s ears. I distinctly remember the response of a dashboard vendor spokesman when asked, after his glorious presentation of the company’s package, “What does it take to get the information into the system?” He said, “That’s not our problem. We do faucets, not plumbing.”

Today, thanks to developments ranging from Y2K updates of ERP software through MIMOSA, OPC-UA and S95 to HTML and Web Services, effective dashboard systems can be relatively straightforward to plumb. But why might you want one, what does it take to do it right, and is it worth it?

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Focus on information

In the realm of industrial asset management, the most interesting dashboard applications are for condition monitoring, workforce management and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). Their power lies in bringing the same information to multiple departments and individuals in the format they find most useful for doing their jobs.

“When we assess plants, we find a hodgepodge of information that does not allow a complete picture of plant performance,” says Erich Scheller, principal consultant, Life Cycle Engineering (LCE, “Separation and segregation of departments is a hindrance to complete information and display, both within a site and over multiple sites.”

Although the technological walls have been broken between automation, operations and maintenance, “Business practices that would enable companies to truly benefit from this newfound freedom have been slow to change,” says Ulf Stern, co-founder, IFS ( Breaching the walls can allow common access to floods of data, but typically doesn’t improve communication.

“The results of human/computer interaction (HCI) research suggest that visualization tools are essential for manipulating and interpreting large quantities of data,” says Stern.

“Timelines and tree maps are especially effective in allowing plant operators to distill usable information from hundreds of thousands of operational metrics.”

For example, Air Liquide monitors and services gas generation, storage and delivery equipment at thousands of sites. “Our data showed discontinuity between action items identified and action items completed, which we attribute to lack of flow of information,” says Steve Busick, manager, maintenance and reliability national programs, Air Liquide ( “We felt it was important to stop moving information from platform to platform, because it might not get from one platform to the next.”

The company piloted a new dashboard system from Rockwell Automation during the first half of this year, and started using it full-time in June at 113 sites. In the old system, information had to make it from a route report through engineer review, a summary report and recommendation to the reliability engineers, an action plan by the reliability engineers, work order generation and work order status reports. “Now, the only stop is to get the information into Maximo, which is not yet fully integrated,” says Busick.

Air Liquide is rolling the system out to more service sites and adding other tools and services to report performance. “One of the big benefits we see is the engineers don’t have to spend as much of their valuable time messing with the system, so they are doing more engineering. The system works for them instead of them working for the system,” Busick adds. “Also, the tighter integration means information never comes to a halt. The flow of requests is automated, and critical issues are focused and kept in the forefront.”

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