Don’t let a start-up finish you off

Senior Editor Dirk Willard spent years as a "start-up" engineer. He advises that proper planning is crucial for achieving a happy ending.

By Dirk Willard, senior editor

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The door was flung open. In stepped my boss who shouted, “I need you in Paris, tonight.” Back less than a month from a summer in the Philippines and with a stack of work on my desk, I was, a little testy. “Are you nuts?” was my reply; it was an impulse but a sound one. This is an example of the first rule of start-ups: never go unprepared.

Starting up a new chemical plant, especially one overseas, is a great opportunity to shine, or to fail spectacularly. As an experienced start-up engineer, let me suggest some ways to improve your chances: 1) review the project scope carefully; 2) discuss the project with the design team; 3) prepare a current set of drawings for mark-up; 4) confirm that the site has reliable Internet access; 5) have an agreed-to list of deliverables with the customer; 6) establish a “punch list” early; 7) know your translator; and 8) understand your supply situation.

To succeed you must have an agreement on the scope between your management and the customer. Regardless of whether you are building a plant for someone else, or your own company, your career may well depend on this agreement. In Turkey, our customer changed its mind on the terms of our final payment during the start-up. I told our management we should walk. We did and only came back a month later when the scope letter was signed. Once the start-up is complete, and operators are trained, you have no bargaining position.

Reliable Internet access has become crucial, not only because of PLCs but also because it reduces the amount of reference material needed. On a job in Korea, we had internet, it just was not in English. A responsible site representative, such as a construction superintendent, is very helpful in arranging these details. To use the site rep effectively, begin the practice of a punch list several weeks, or months, before departing for the start-up; break up the list by disciplines, if possible. Use the punch lists throughout the start-up. Work with the design team to establish the first punch list — avoid surprises! On the job in Paris, I remember new spray nozzles in our spray roaster; start-up was delayed at least two weeks because we could not prevent leaking.

Before packing your bags, take some time to review the maintenance manual, maintenance book, operating manual and quality manual. These manuals should be current and at the jobsite. If possible, the manuals should be combined. It is important to have your on-site rep review these documents before start-up. Have the rep introduce you to the translator ASAP; talk long-distance, if necessary.
Packing for a start-up is a balance between personal comfort and necessity. Safety gear, a digital camera, the scope agreement, and instruments are obvious requirements. Never assume that safety gear such as goggles and a respirator will be provided. A digital camera, with lots of rechargeable batteries, is an absolute necessity:<ital>“a picture speaks a thousand words”<end ital>. Buy the surge protector when you arrive overseas to match the local voltage requirements. If possible, design a control room with protected 120 VAC power. Depending on the jobsite, it may be practical to prepare extra passport photos; most sites will require a photo ID.For future start-ups, pack a hard-bound ledger for shift notes.

Lastly, review the spare parts available on the jobsite. Certain items, such as mechanical seals for pumps will be difficult to get. Divide the responsibility for these items between the members of the team to assure that you are not waiting for three weeks in a hotel. It is important to know that there may be a difference between the parts you will need to operate a plant and the parts agreed to when the contract was signed. In addition, some parts may have been consumed because of construction mistakes. Label all parts carefully — and check the parts, not just the box. Prior to leaving on an assignment, I tortured a seal vendor mercilessly. I insisted he come in personally while we checked each part. We went through a dozen boxes. Then, I labeled the boxes and the parts individually, in case of separation. Shortly after I handed over the parts, the contractor’s mechanics dumped the parts on a table and mixed everything. Thankfully, the seals could be reassembled easily because each part was labeled. No start-up ever goes smoothly but planning can help you avoid a career-stopping experience.

Dirk Willard, senior editor
DWillard@Putman.net

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