Advanced technologies provide multiple benefits

Jan. 2, 2007
Marriage of the computer and the telephone.

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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.

For out of sight, and often out of mind, remote locations, a facility communication system is powerful when coupled with automation software or programmable logic controllers monitoring critical remote equipment. This approach provides for advance notification to key personnel of an out-of-tolerance status before the equipment fails or stops functioning.

Cellular Digital Packet Data, an emerging wireless communication technology for monitoring remote locations, enhances plant communication capabilities. It is a cellular network for data only, not voice, that improves the reliability level of wireless communications. While remote locations can be equipped for wireless communications, the reliability of most of the present technological solutions does not match that of wired communications. The cost for establishing wired communications to a remote site can be expensive, calling for a dedicated phone line and costly wire runs. Cellular Digital Packet Data technology eliminates this cost. In addition to being more cost-effective, in a power outage situation at a remote location, the technology is more reliable than conventional wiring.

A facility communication system integrates emerging technologies into a plant's communication and monitoring system. This system interacts with conventional communications systems, public address systems, walkie-talkies, and the like as well as the emerging Cellular Digital Packet Data technology and other wireless communication networks. While Cellular Digital Packet Data technology handles only data, in the near future other wireless communication technologies will feature voice in addition to data transmission capabilities. A facility communications system that includes these emerging wireless technologies is significant.

Closing the communication loop

The need to confirm or acknowledge a message is critical in most communication systems. At times, communicating to others that a specific message has been received is as important as the message itself. Communicating that a specific individual is going to respond to or handle the alert or message is often critical. Documenting that a message or alert was sent, the time it was sent, the specific alarm, who acknowledged it, and when the situation was corrected is also critical. A facility communication system provides each of these capabilities.

A facility communications system eliminates redundant responses to alarms and requests for support. At times it is not often clear who is to respond to an alarm situation. For each monitoring situation, the message is directed to the key personnel with the skills and capability to handle the issue. One of the functions that this new technology provides is closing the communication loop--when and who is responding to each message. A facility communication system requires someone to acknowledge the message or alarm. If a message is not acknowledged, the system continually rebroadcasts the alert or routes it to a different group of people until there is an acknowledgment via conventional telephone or by logging onto a computer.

An on-site cellular phone system, something relatively new to industrial facilities, closes the communication loop more tightly. When integrated with a facility communication system, an employee can acknowledge an alarm or a message from anywhere in a facility. These systems send voice and data messages to the same mobile phone and make possible bi-directional data communications.
What this means is that you can send a data message to a mobile cellular phone anywhere in a facility and the individual can respond to the message by sending data communication back to the communication system.

The communication system links to the source of the original message. If the originator was a programmable logic controller or some automation software, the response message can be instructions to change the operating parameters on the equipment. A cellular phone can now be used to change boiler pressures or flow rates from anywhere in a facility. This powerful capability will be available in the future on public cellular networks.

Maintenance programs

Most facility communications systems integrate with the newer CMMS packages to expand the functionality of these programs. It is possible to notify an individual or a group of service requirement on a set date or time. You pre-select notification times by the hour, week, month, year, or a combination of these variables.

A facility communication system tracks and records the entire communication process. For a routine maintenance requirement, once the appropriate individual or group gets the pre-set message, the system tracks the acknowledgment and notes who is taking responsibility for the action and when the required maintenance or service has been completed. The facility communication system automatically captured this information for retrieval in tabular or graphical format from any computer connected a local area network. If there is no local area network in the facility, then any stand-alone PC or laptop can retrieve the information.


Information detailing the number of maintenance requests or equipment failures, the locations, the day and the time of day, and the amount of time a piece of equipment is offline plays a valuable role in the allocation of maintenance resources. The value of the information grows when coupled with input about performance of scheduled maintenance activities. Retrieving this information as trend analysis charts or graphs is a built-in feature of the facility communication system.

You can also track occurrences in real-time as they happen. Graphs and charts update automatically as alerts or requests for support occur. The charts can be displayed on computer monitors, electronic display panels, or on flat panel displays strategically located throughout a plant. The charts and graphs can be printed for distribution or stored as historical files for later use.

A facility communication system brings a new dimension of control and security to the task of monitoring and tracking activity in a facility. These versatile systems integrate with a plant's existing systems and communications infrastructure and take inputs from a variety of sources throughout a facility. They also incorporate emerging communication technologies. You can prioritize alert and support requests and direct the message to the appropriate individual to handle the situation. Message acknowledgment and automatic capture of the entire message processes are valuable features of a facility communication system. This results in getting the right person to the right location at the right time.

An investment in a facility communication system pays for itself in less than six months. It is an investment with a tremendous potential for improving the productivity of plant maintenance and engineering resources. A facility communication system has a positive impact on other areas of a facility and has led to major improvements in a plant's overall performance.

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