The Sadara project in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, was a huge undertaking. Indeed, its magnitude and scale are unprecedented. The $20-billion initiative, a joint venture between Saudi Aramco and Dow Chemical, is the world’s largest petrochemical complex ever built in a single phase. Fifteen separate engineering procurement and construction (EPC) contractors from eight different countries took part its construction. Now fully operational, the plant produces three million tons of various specialty chemical products a year, generating $10 billion in sales.
Traditionally, projects of this magnitude are implemented in phases. At a typical site, such as those on the U.S. Gulf Coast, reaching a similar scale can take between 15 and 20 years. In contrast, Sadara achieved this scale in just 8 years.
The Saudi site includes more than 2,500 km of piping, 5,400 km of cables, enough to link Jubail with London, and around 114,000 tons of steel structure, which is enough to construct one and a half Golden Gate bridges. The 700,000 m3 of concrete at Sadara could build two causeways between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
From the very beginning, safety was a prime focus for Sadara. At peak construction, 60,000 people were working at the site simultaneously. This meant the Sadara team had to put in place a rigorous and robust safety culture very early in the project lifecycle. Considerable time was spent in ensuring safe products and designs, with safe practices and methods adopted. All this led to Sadara achieving an exceptional safety record, beating all industry expectations.
The complex contains 18 distributed control and safety systems including 150,000 inputs/outputs. The facility features 64 consoles — spread across five operator buildings — that provide ergonomic human/machine interfaces for maximum productivity across all the site’s assets. ABB delivered the complete distributed control and safety system as the main automation contractor for this project.
Of the 26 plants at Sadara, 14 were new to the region. So, finding enough experienced operators and maintenance engineers was a challenge. To help bridge this skills gap, ABB provided simulation tools to enhance the capabilities of operators to correctly implement the recommended operational philosophies and control logic.
When it came to delivering a homogeneous control system, and because the project was built in a single phase, the biggest challenge was managing the large number of EPC contractors simultaneously working on the plants.
ABB project teams had to work on different scopes at the same time in different locations with different EPCs. Success required ensuring consistency of design, availability of best practices, and standard systems regardless of EPC contractor.
Standardization began with a front-end engineering design (FEED) study: we created a workflow of how ABB was going to engineer the system and work effectively with multiple EPCs, using a best practice model. Our approach specified fundamental logistical and organizational matters such as when we must receive information from EPCs and in which formats.
We carried out familiarization in a short phase, soon after EPCs had been appointed. This was no small task. ABB, together with the EPCs, ran scenarios to trial small aspects of the project to help each contractor fully understand the precise requirements. This approach was vital because the EPCs’ ways of using procedures and practices differ markedly. We couldn’t and wouldn’t expect everyone to fully comprehend — let alone conform to — the proposed methodology just on paper. Our approach had to be put into practice, even on a micro scale, time after time with each EPC to ensure compliance. Encouragingly, many embraced the process.
To drive standardization and consistency, we created procedures, work practices and templates during the FEED for each and every EPC to use. Unlike traditional project execution, which is based on a transactional exchange of data and documentation between EPC and vendors, we adopted a more-collaborative approach. The design was formally documented using the FEED templates and extensively reviewed among the various stakeholders. We used contemporary communications technologies, including web meetings, audio and video conferencing. Manufacturing and fabrication began only after formal approval of the design.
The objective was to do everything right the first time. We succeeded in most cases — if we experienced inevitable delays or issues, we created workarounds based on intelligent assumptions to stay on track. This approach allowed us to avoid having to rework after testing, which can be expensive and time-consuming. This also marked a step-change from the way EPCs usually work.
Delivering A Digital Plant
Although the digitalization wave had not hit the industry back when we started the project, we were already using a number of digital technologies during the design, engineering and testing phases. Key among these were virtualization and cloud-based engineering as well as simulation or digital twins and unit-based control.
We employed digital twins not only for operator training but also in a novel approach for code validation: testing the control applications that we developed. The use of a simulation system or digital twin for testing the applications was critical on this project because some processes had not been deployed before. This contributed to the flawless startup of the site.
It was essential to ensure high-quality, error-free applications. Once we had installed and run the system on site, we wanted to avoid making changes at a later stage. The simulation system allowed us to accomplish that by creating a digital process model of the plant prior to construction.
To achieve this, we partnered with Corys, a French company specializing in training and engineering simulators, to create live thermodynamic process models on a software platform. Then, we connected these models to our cloud-based automation systems in real time. This enabled us to make changes on the process side to see how the automation system behaved and vice versa. As a result, we could adapt or change control logic accordingly. This provided operators with a tool to test, even before the plant was built, how they could start or shut down the plant and handle any disturbances.
The second critical technology deployed was what we call “unit-based control.” This is a technical approach to regulating petrochemical processes. Traditionally, starting a unit such as a cracker requires actions at the equipment level — turning on a pump, opening a valve, etc. — carried out in proper sequence to ensure safe operation. In the case of unit-based control, the operations are executed at unit level, rather than the equipment level. The operations at equipment level are handled automatically by the ABB Ability 800xA system.
The magnitude and scale of the project presented some challenges for ABB, which we strived to overcome using problem-solving, collaboration and best practices.
We had to manage several ABB subsidiaries working in tandem to fulfill this project. We had three centers in Houston; Oslo, Norway; and Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that executed plans.
Sensibly, we split up the workload based on the location of the related EPC. Our Oslo team assumed the lead with a Korean EPC such as Daelim or a European EPC such as Tecnimont, Jacobs or Fluor. Our Houston team took control for U.S. EPC contractors and Dow-related plant activity. Naturally, our Al-Khobar team led efforts with local Saudi EPC contractors such as JGC.
Our high-value engineering center in Bangalore, India, delivered back-office and engineering support. Showing our global reach and scope, analyzers came from Shanghai, the terminal management system from Madrid and Singapore, consoles from Borås in Sweden, drives from Helsinki, and transformers from Boston. A global supply chain team purchased equipment from India, China, Spain, Saudi Arabia and Finland.
As project directors, we leaned heavily on the depth of our organization and the breadth of our portfolio to deliver this mega project. It would not have been possible for a local company to pull this off. Being global in our scope and scale was truly vital to ABB contributing to Sadara’s success.
Timeline And Phases
The final investment decision for this project came in the second half of 2011; the first sand removal and construction took place later that year. It was at this time that ABB began the FEED process, which was completed by the end of 2012. The first order was placed in 2012, for the cracker with Daelim in Korea, with the rest of the orders following soon afterwards.
Initial production started in 2015, just four years after the project began, with the polyethylene trains. The cracker came on stream about a year later, and the rest of the plants were up and running by September 2017. A mere two years after the first products were delivered, the entire site was operational.
Our ABB Ability System 800xA handles distributed control, electrical control and safety, and enables collaboration to improve engineering efficiency, operator performance and asset utilization. This unit-based control system successfully completed a creditors reliability test (CRT). This rigorous test, mandated by the high project financing, is designed to show reliability. The CRT, which consists of 104 criteria to be achieved together during a testing period of 90 days, assesses completion of the project, stable operation and reliability of 26 highly integrated plants.
Key Project Indicators
From the outset, Sadara set key performance indicators to measure project progress and success:
• safety — no one gets hurt;
• cost — be competitive;
• schedule — meet critical plan dates;
• quality — deliver best-in-class assets; and
• people — sustain high-performance teams.
ABB fulfilled expectations on all five KPIs, especially safety and schedule, which Sadara deemed critical. We credit consistency, standardization, having the people, and simulation for enabling us to meet the project milestones.
ABB is proud of our role in contributing to the success of this mega project. We remain an ongoing partner of Sadara — our service team supports the complex during its operating phase.
SWARANDEEP SINGH is Oslo, Norway-based vice president, global chemical and refining lead for ABB Energy Industries. Email him at [email protected].