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Sophistication only goes so far

April 2, 2004

 By Mark Rosenzweig

Most engineers today rely on powerful and sophisticated tools to design and operate plants efficiently. Our capabilities, for instance, to accurately simulate and control processes were unimaginable a generation ago. Undoubtedly, engineers a generation from now will marvel at how we made do with such "primitive" tools.

Technological advances, particularly the increasing presence and prowess of electronics, are now a given. For example, the widening use of wireless technology shouldn't surprise many. As David Hrivnak of Eastman Chemical Co. points out in his article in this issue, wireless technology certainly can improve plant operations and maintenance. It allows the tracking of process variables that would be difficult or overly expensive to monitor using traditional hardwired devices. It also enables broader use of test and maintenance equipment that requires an Ethernet connection.

However, electronics can transform chemical processing only so much. We still must employ unit operations to make materials. We will see shifts in the scale of processes, the nature of feedstocks and the like. Indeed, nanotechnology, biotechnology and other developments promise to redirect and redefine chemical engineering. In the end, though, we will continue to use heat exchangers, reactors, distillation columns and other well-established equipment to make products.

Such hardware has continued to evolve and improve as we have increased our understanding of fundamental principles. Likewise, the chemical industry is profiting from advances in catalysts, membranes and other materials.

Still, superficially at least, a lot of process equipment resembles units that have served in plants for ages. This makes it all the more mystifying why even today we can't get some of the basics right.

Consider the ubiquitous centrifugal pump. It, conceptually, is a relatively simple device, and has benefited from continual refinement. So, why do some centrifugal pumps still frequently fail?

Don't be so quick to blame the pump, cautions consultant Ross Mackay, poor piping layout often is the real cause. He presents seven straightforward rules to preclude such problems. More than likely, your most troublesome pumps don't comply with many, if any, of these rules. Yet, none of the rules are particularly complex or hard to understand. Indeed, some, such as making sure the pump is in an accessible location, are just common sense. It's not like there's something dramatically new or different about how pumps should be piped up. Quite simply, plants are not paying attention to the details, either out of ignorance or expediency.

Disregarding basic issues, such as proper installation, can doom equipment to persistent problems that the most sophisticated electronics won't cure.

Mark Rosenzweig is editor in chief of Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail him at [email protected].

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