Advanced technologies provide multiple benefits

Marriage of the computer and the telephone.

By Robert Giese

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New facility communication systems provide benefits for an industrial facility. These systems alert maintenance and technical personnel of failures in critical plant equipment within seconds via a wireless personal communication system. Immediately after a failure occurs, key personnel receive voice and text messages. For example, on-site cellular phones can display boiler temperatures and flow rates to a plant engineer anywhere in the facility. The engineer is not only able to see the status but is also able to change the flow rates or the boiler temperatures using the phone keypad. E-mail of daily preventive maintenance activity can be delivered to the maintenance manager's desktop computer automatically.

Graphs of machine downtime by day, week, or month can be generated and printed automatically anywhere in the facility. These are a few of the capabilities available with facility communications systems for industrial facilities.

Digital future

Recent years have seen the marriage of communication systems and the computer. This melding revolutionizes the way we communicate. Systems now integrate voice and data communications into a single system that ties into the facility's local area network and to the Internet. Digital equipment is rapidly replacing antiquated telephones systems. Personal communication system phones combine alphanumeric paging, two-way radio communication, and voice into a compact, easy-to-use device. The digital phone systems view individual phone handsets as both voice and data terminals. Facility communication systems based on digital technology accept inputs from throughout the facility and reliably send voice or text messages to walkie-talkies, fax machines, telephones, public address systems, pagers, e-mail, and electronic message displays. These digital systems accept inputs from programmable logic controllers, switch contacts, automation software, call boxes, computers, and telephones anywhere in a facility.

Facility wide communications

The need for immediate communication with key plant maintenance and engineering personnel is critical where high noise levels and the lack of adequate public address system coverage hamper communications. A facility communication system must address unique site communication requirements.The goal is to quickly reach employees anywhere in the facility. New communication systems fulfil the requirement of facility-wide communication in many ways. These systems integrate with existing communication networks and communication devices. Treating each monitoring or communication situation separately allows establishing message routings and messaging priorities.

These systems send voice or text messages. The same alarm situation message, in a matter of seconds, vibrates a pager while simultaneously being delivered to a two-way radio and to the telephone at a guard station. The message can be routed to specific groups or individuals in a pre-defined order ensuring a timely response.

Messages may require acknowledgment via a computer or telephone from the individual receiving the message. If the primary recipient does not acknowledge the message, then it can be repeated and re-routed until someone else acknowledges it. The system also tracks the time and activity for individual message events. A facility communication system with these capabilities reaches every employee, anywhere in a facility.

Remote monitoring

Monitoring remote plant systems such as cooling towers or water treatment yards is a challenge since most of these subsystems normally operate unattended. If the remote equipment is critical to a plant's operation, then there is usually some form of monitoring equipment installed there. One of the values of a facility communication system to remote monitoring situations is that it integrates with existing monitoring equipment and significantly extends the communications capabilities in the distribution and tracking of an alarm message. It also provides for receipt acknowledgment and documentation of the message delivery. The technology routes, forwards, and tracks the response times of critical messages from remote locations.

A facility communication system delivers an alert message to different groups or individuals depending upon the shift or the time of day. The system treats each monitoring point at a remote location as a separate entity. In addition to the setpoint, configuring a monitoring point requires information:

  • the person to whom the alert should be sent,
  • how often the alert message is to be sent,
  • the communication device to which the message is to be sent,
  • the required level of acknowledgment, and
  • the identity of the person to receive a message that indicates the situation has returned to normal.

The system has built-in flexibility to route messages appropriately. During the first shift, it can route messages to the maintenance department, but at other times, route the message to the guard shack or to the security office. If the alert is not critical, the guard decides how to handle the problem. For a critical alert concerning equipment that would shut down a plant's operation, a message would be directed to key plant maintenance and engineering managers home telephones, pagers, and walkie-talkies--24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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