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Maintenance: Turnarounds Get A New Spin

Dec. 6, 2021
The pandemic is prompting a move to performing less work during a planned shutdown

Turnarounds are becoming even trickier due to the impact of supply chain problems, staff shortages, lack of contractors and other COVID-19-related issues.

Software and consulting company KBC, and Emerson counsel that effectively tackling these issues requires working hard to limit the scope of turnarounds and better managing their associated risks.

In the face of these pressures, compounded by clients reporting contractor availability being less than 10% of that needed, KBC believes that, before planning any work, an operating company must answer one crucial question: “Is the underlying premise of the turnaround still valid?”

“It’s the golden rule for turnaround success. Get the scope right: i.e., can you defer individual elements and do them at another time?,” notes Jim Watt, global product manager, reliability, availability and maintenance, for KBC, Walton, U.K.

“Furthermore, can you even postpone the whole project? We are asking that fundamental question of businesses,” adds Mark Hudson, senior leader in KBC’s consulting business, also based in Walton, U.K.

To help answer these questions, KBC uses its five-step turnaround optimization program (TOP), a customizable set of reviews to gain specific value and drive cost out of turnarounds. These focused workshops use cross-functional client teams, including representatives from operations, maintenance, reliability and inspection, to identify costs, a suitable risk-management approach, and improvements in turnaround performance and long-term sustainability.

The first step in TOP is a full review of a client’s turnaround strategy; the program ultimately progresses to a final, lessons-learned step.

Part of the challenge for many chemical processing, oil-and-gas and refining companies is not treating turnaround in the traditional way, Watt emphasizes. Lots of companies historically view turnarounds, he says, as periodic shutdowns that provide an opportunity to perform a large number of projects identified beforehand.

“In reality, you end up with a bunch of work that doesn’t need to be done during a turnaround. So the scope grows and, with this, the risk and associated costs. Every additional job adds risk. Also, due to high overheads and labor rates, the cost to do certain jobs during turnarounds can be more than twice what it would be to do it as routine maintenance. So minimizing scope minimizes both risks and costs [Figure 1],” he stresses.

Winnowing Work

To minimize scope, KBC takes a rigorous risk-based approach, typically using tools including risk-based work selection, to go through the initial work scope and ask, for example, what’s the risk if you don’t do this particular piece of work during turnaround? If the risk is low and deemed acceptable, that work doesn’t occur during the turnaround but instead takes place at the optimum appropriate opportunity.

Scrutinizing Scope

Figure 1. Identifying and eliminating non-essential work during turnarounds minimizes risks and costs. Source: KBC.

But how does this add value when most clients have their own risk-based turnaround processes to begin with? Watt explains: “Of course, they could do it for themselves, but they don’t have ‘cold eyes’ and the ability to challenge the status quo. Sometimes clients have difficulty in challenging themselves and, at the same time, may not be fully aware of [the] latest international practices and norms. Companies are doing the things they have always done in the way they have always done them — but without understanding the real, true risk to their businesses.”

However, he adds, this approach depends on client management support, which particularly is needed to emphasize to staff that the risk assessments and reviews KBC is facilitating differ markedly in rigor and focus from those they might have experienced before.

The potential savings with this approach are enormous. For example, KBC reviewed the scope of a turnaround at a European refinery and found 80% of the work could be deferred.

“Following our review, the company looked at its entire strategy and cancelled that turnaround completely. It’s an extreme case, but even so we usually find that 20–30% of any scope can come out,” says Watt.

He cites several other examples that highlight the benefits of KBC’s “get the scope right” philosophy.

First, is the implementation of a full TOP for a major oil company in the Asia Pacific region. It covered three refineries with a combined capacity of 425,000 bbl/d, plus the firm’s head office. The company’s problem was the high costs and long duration of turnarounds posed a serious risk of loss of refinery availability.

Among the key recommendations of the TOP program were: optimization of work scope through rigorous work selection, reduction of the turnaround critical path schedule, and minimizing the budget through monitoring and control strategy on contractor performance.

Benefits for the client included ongoing savings of over $50 million/yr, a 10–15% reduction in work scope, $10 million of savings during the assessment stage, plus identification and mitigation of high risks before the turnaround execution.

The second example involves a Middle Eastern petrochemicals company which found the cost for the first turnaround after initial refinery start-up significantly exceeded the budget estimate.

Here, KBC used the second step of the TOP strategy — risk-based work-scope optimization — to identify the “right” optimal scope, and to understand and manage the risk for work items not included.

This led to a 21.4% decrease in the number of scope items, with an associated cost reduction of roughly $7.9 million. Identification of reduced scope on 84 turnaround work items cut another $1.1 million from turnaround costs.

The third example is of a European olefins complex that experienced a 13-day delay on a major turnaround. This, in turn, jeopardized supply of high-purity ethylene to neighboring manufacturing sites. For the client, this came as major shock because it had carried out detailed, timely planning and scheduling beforehand. Also, it had secured the contractors it wanted and alerted spare parts manufacturers more than 12 months prior to the shutdown.

Here, KBC conducted a three-month turnaround close-out review — the final step of the TOP. This included a thorough assessment by a client/KBC team of the challenges experienced from turnaround definition through execution to understand why the planned results so differed from the actual ones.

The review identified a number of contributory factors for the overrun. Among these were: late approval and poor definition of some projects that did not allow for detailed planning; poorer contractor performance before and during turnaround phases than previously experienced, including late delivery of pre-fabricated piping spools; and an initial 20% weld-rejection rate that wasn’t reported by the inspection contractor for two weeks.

Among KBC’s final recommendations was a continued turnaround interval of 84 months — instead of a move to 96 months the client was considering — and improved management of causal factors that had impacted turnaround performance.

Continuous Monitoring

Figure 2. Small, easy-to-install sensors like this vibration monitor can warn if an asset needs attention well before a turnaround. Source: Emerson.

Eliminating Surprises

The last two years have seen a dramatic change in the way that organizations plan and execute turnarounds, says John Sanders, Eden Prairie, Minn.-based director for global shutdowns, turnarounds, and outages for Emerson. The many and varied implications of COVID-19 and endemic shortages in experienced personnel have left plants operating with crews far smaller than optimal to perform a safe, effective and timely turnaround, he adds.

“Moreover, economic uncertainty during the last two years has made organizations wary of spending capital, and even those plants willing to spend are seeing supply chain issues that make executing large projects more difficult.”

At the same time, keeping processes running at peak performance requires performing some work. “In the chemical manufacturing industry in particular, unplanned outages can exacerbate existing supply-chain issues, so organizations are focused on finding new ways to plan and complete turnarounds on time and on budget,” he explains.

The most successful of these companies use digital vibration-analysis and condition-monitoring technologies in tandem with digital walkdown and workflow tools to collect and trend critical data, and identify root causes, notes Sanders.

However, just because an asset is non-essential enough to allow deferring its maintenance doesn’t mean its issues won’t affect production. Consider a non-critical valve with servicing left out of a turnaround to save time. If this lack of maintenance results in missing a small leak causing 5% less efficiency, a significant impact on production would result over the weeks, months or years until it is discovered.

“The solution comes down to risk management, which itself is about eliminating surprises,” says Aaron Crews, director for modernization solutions and consulting, Emerson, Round Rock, Texas. “Instead of scheduling based solely on criticality, plants performing the most-successful turnarounds use knowledge gained from predictive maintenance technologies that have been collecting and analyzing asset health data since well before the turnaround date.”

Crews points to the importance not only of detecting asset defects but also of clearly identifying their severity and finding the root causes. He suggests small, easy-to-install and cost-effective sensors such as Emerson’s PeakVue family (Figure 2) that provide an intuitive analysis of an asset’s current health.

“Armed with more knowledge about the severity and causes of defects affecting their equipment, turnaround teams can make better decisions about what needs to be repaired immediately and what can wait, making it far easier to accurately schedule turnarounds. They can also rely on that same analytical data to feel more confident deferring maintenance for some assets, knowing they will be notified immediately if a pending problem is detected,” he adds.

Success also depends on experienced personnel, either internal or external to the organization, carrying out essential tasks such as detailed walkdowns.

However, with fewer experts on staff or because of the need to stagger personnel on site to meet social distancing guidelines, most organizations face difficulties in assembling enough company experts to guide these walkdowns and generate the workflows needed to provide sufficient data for turnaround planning.

In fact, says Crews, even before the pandemic, organizations were having to contract workers six months or more in advance of a turnaround to ensure they had the best available personnel. Today, with an increasing worker shortage compounded by social distancing requirements, along with a rapid return to business after a long period of downtime, teams looking to hire expert personnel often discover the people they need are locked into long-term contracts. Moreover, even when organizations can find the experts required, restrictions on travel or quarantines can mean delays of days or weeks before an expert is available.

Better Walkdowns

Figure 3. Digital tools foster more-efficient walkdowns and better preparation for turnarounds. Source: Emerson.

Part of the answer here lies with automation vendors who have developed digital walkdown and workflow tools to help offset a shortage of expertise in the field (Figure 3).

“These digital tools rely on mobile devices to help new and experienced workers become more efficient by accurately navigating the walkdown process. Guided workflows provide procedural tools to take pictures and videos, along with voice and text notes, as personnel perform walkdowns. Many of these walkdown tools are created with specific assets in mind, automatically prompting users to check and record the most important and relevant data at every step,” explains Sanders.

Similarly, mobile video and augmented reality tools allow expert technicians to monitor walkdowns, and to offer live advice and guidance in real time to less-experienced personnel. Even in the face of travel restrictions or quarantines, these technologies ensure access by turnaround teams to the expert advice needed.

“Using predictive maintenance knowledge coupled with thorough pre-turnaround walkdowns, teams can identify which assets truly need maintenance and, thus, avoid inadvertently introducing issues where none existed. Moreover, they are likely overhauling fewer pieces of equipment, reducing plant outages and making it easier to ensure — before work begins — they have fast access to any required spare parts,” he adds.

Organizations seeing the most improvement in performance and stability will be those that embrace the digital technologies available today to streamline turnarounds, Sanders strongly believes.

“A maintenance foundation built on pre-turnaround predictive maintenance and collaborative walkdown and workflow tools will prepare plants for more-successful turnarounds — and, by extension, more-efficient production. In the long term, such a strategy will also ready the organization for future uncertainties and market fluctuations,” he concludes.

About the Author

Seán Ottewell | Editor-at-Large

Seán Crevan Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor-at-Large. Seán earned his bachelor's of science degree in biochemistry at the University of Warwick and his master's in radiation biochemistry at the University of London. He served as Science Officer with the UK Department of Environment’s Chernobyl Monitoring Unit’s Food Science Radiation Unit, London. His editorial background includes assistant editor, news editor and then editor of The Chemical Engineer, the Institution of Chemical Engineers’ twice monthly technical journal. Prior to joining Chemical Processing in 2012 he was editor of European Chemical Engineer, European Process Engineer, International Power Engineer, and European Laboratory Scientist, with Setform Limited, London.

He is based in East Mayo, Republic of Ireland, where he and his wife Suzi (a maths, biology and chemistry teacher) host guests from all over the world at their holiday cottage in East Mayo

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