Spend Slack Time Smartly

You finally may have a chance to focus on a variety of worthwhile projects.

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

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There’s no denying that the bad economic news is continuing and the chemical industry is suffering along with every other manufacturing sector in the U.S. According to the latest data provided by the American Chemistry Council, Arlington, Va., for our Economic Snapshot, chemical industry shipments, which dropped sharply in November, continued to slide in December, and capacity utilization also kept declining, falling well below 70% in December. In addition, many chemical companies have announced significant job cuts.

While hardly a silver lining among all this gloom, at least the slowdown may provide opportunities to devote time to some efforts with lasting value.

For instance, it may allow your plant to conduct a steam survey to identify potential savings. Sure, money is tight and there may be nothing in the budget to bring in an outside specialist. However, as our Energy Saver columnist Gary Faagau points out (http://www.chemicalprocessing.com/articles/2009/039.html ), you can perform such a survey yourself. The instrumentation required isn’t exotic or overly expensive — indeed, your maintenance group quite likely already may have a thermography gun. Check the boiler and blowdown system and the multitude of steam traps throughout the plant. “Steam surveys aren’t easy and require a lot of work, but by prioritizing and looking for some common problems, you may be able to capture some easy money,” he concludes.

Now also might be a good time to tackle nagging equipment issues that ordinarily never get high enough on the priority list to address. “You must inspect the unit — going out into the field to verify operation and see how the equipment is configured. Applying engineering fundamentals and experience to field observation solves plant problems. Sitting in the office theorizing doesn’t,” sagely advised Plant InSites columnist Andrew Sloley last month ((http://www.chemicalprocessing.com/articles/2009/022.html). “Field observation and application of fundamentals are key to solving many ‘inexplicable’ plant problems. Get out into the field, talk to the operators, verify the unit configuration and gain the experience to be able to say ‘that doesn’t look right’ when you see something new,” he stresses.

Another worthwhile endeavor is to finally get around to confronting control system over-alarming. If yours is like most plants, it suffers from an excessive number of alarms, which can lead to alarm floods — these can make operators’ jobs all the more difficult by making it hard for them to spot really significant alarms. The lead paragraph in our article “Rethink Batch-Manufacturing Alarm Systems (http://www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2008/019.html ) bears repeating: “Do operators sing the praises of your plant’s alarm system? No? Well, do they at least agree that generated alarms represent real abnormal situations requiring a response and that the automation/control system presents alarms in a timely, accurate and reliable way? No again? Well why not? Aren’t operators the primary customers of your alarm system? Perhaps it’s time for an alarm remediation project.” As “Avoid Alarm Blunders” (http://www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2006/091.html ) emphasizes, benchmarking current alarm performance, developing an alarm philosophy document, rationalizing alarms, and watching on an ongoing basis for opportunities for improvement can dramatically enhance the effectiveness of your alarm system.

Likewise, consider automating procedures that operators now handle manually. As “Help Your Operators” (http://www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2007/121.html ) underscores, understanding what best practices are and automating them can increase operator efficiency, decrease the time to execute a procedure and, thus, boost production capacity, and avoid mistakes that can lead to equipment damage and downtime.


Spending time to improve shift handovers also can pay dividends. A successful handover heavily depends on the organizational skills of management and the effective use of three communication tools, emphasizes “Effective Shift Management is No Accident” (http://www.chemicalprocessing.com/articles/2006/084.html ). It demands establishing a formal handover meeting at set times and developing a shift monitoring plan.
Similarly, this may be an apt time to help operators and maintenance staff polish their skills and capture expertise from old-hands. And when did you last have a chance to get staff together to discuss what would help them do their jobs better?

If you’re like many engineers, you probably also would welcome the opportunity to add to your own knowledge, judging by our online poll last month. It asked about potential interest in “lunch and learn” presentations by vendors and more than half of the respondents expressed high interest. Quite a few vendors undoubtedly would appreciate the chance to conduct such sessions at your site.

Most likely you can think of slews of other activities to take advantage of any slack. So, use the downturn to give your plant and yourself an uplift.


Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can e-mail him at mrosenzweig@putman.net.
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