The economics of chemical manufacturing usually favor production in fewer but larger plants rather than in many smaller ones. Larger facilities require larger organizations and multiple-discipline teams to run effectively. This ratchets up the importance of effective workflows for handing off and reviewing elements of projects. Over-the-fence engineering where work is done in silos with no knowledge or consideration of the actual plant objective can create difficulties. One key contributor to problems are specialists who don’t grasp the full impact of their changes. Another common culprit is a rushed workflow that lacks sufficient time for review and verification of the correctness of steps. Every job has a “right” schedule for going from idea to implementation. To understand this better, we must look at the overall procedure used to get from an idea to an implementation.
The idea may range from building a completely new plant to making a modest modification to a current facility. Here, we’ll focus on smaller changes, i.e., repairs or replacements to an existing plant. Even minor modifications can involve extensive lead time. Figure 1 summarizes the general workflow for making a change from inception of the project to final implementation and review of how well it worked out. I think four points deserve emphasis.
First, most work, especially in larger and more-complex plants, involves disparate groups: process design (to define what needs doing); mechanical design (for how to build it); purchasing (to buy and determine the expected delivery of necessary components); vendors (to supply these components); constructors (for bringing and assembling hardware and equipment on site); and others. Getting all these groups to work well together hinges on good teamwork.
Engineers whose skills extend beyond their particular area of responsibility can play a key role in making teamwork efficient. Such engineers have the knowledge to successfully balance competing priorities. Skills in overlapping areas don’t appear by magic. For example, it takes time for an engineer to get design, operations and construction experience. Likewise, developing expertise on chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering requirements is not a quick process. These more-experienced personnel are critical; they enable changes to meet reasonable schedules because smarter trade-offs are made sooner.
At every step, decisions may change the equipment. So, they need review by groups responsible for previous steps to ensure the alterations remain consistent with the final objectives. Ignoring the cumulative impact of changes leads to many failures. All these feedback-and-check decisions take time. Any work requiring a plant shutdown should have a cut-off date for every step. Management must ensure the cut-off dates for work are adhered to as much as possible. A “good” solution that’s on schedule typically is much better than the “best” solution that’s late.
Figure 1. Verifying that changes do not undermine achieving the final objective is crucial.
Second, as the project progresses, the ability to change the schedule and cost decreases. Once the plant is about half-way along the workflow (Step 4 in Figure 1), the best-case minimum cost and schedule is fixed. (The cost estimate still could be wrong, though.)
Third, the largest cost risk occurs once the workflow is half-way through. Poor planning and field execution move costs up from the best case. Extensive analysis shows the largest factors driving cost overruns for an average project are labor productivity and labor costs. Minimizing these risks requires good planning.
Fourth, the final step is validation of upgrades and changes made. (As a plant troubleshooter, I’ve seen too many problems that remain after multiple “fixes.”) This step confirms the required technical result has been achieved. Always remember the most-expensive repair is the one that does not work! Failures often stem from not identifying the real source of a problem or from systemic shortcomings in implementing an effective solution.
Effective teamwork and efficient feedback and review can help optimize workflow and spur project success.