Race-Ready Project Development Gives Chemical Plants an Edge

Aug. 11, 2023
In the evolving world of chemical processing, companies face a formidable challenge as they strive to keep pace with ever-evolving industry demands, develop novel formulations and deliver innovative products to market. Meeting customer needs often requires adjustments to production processes, including new plants, facility expansions and equipment upgrades. The successful execution of such projects hinges upon comprehensive planning, particularly when it comes to evaluating process safety risks.

Complex assessments, such as studies of overpressure relief devices, facility sitings and process safety procedure development, are crucial elements in this process. However, plant operators are primarily experts in running chemical plant operations, not project planning. To shed light on this critical aspect, Chemical Processing spoke with Chris Neff, senior vice president of project development for aeSolutions. In this discussion, Neff delves into the intricacies of the project-planning process and outlines methods for chemical manufacturers to integrate safety seamlessly into their projects.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about why some process operations struggle when embarking on new projects?

A. An owner's primary responsibility is the operation of the plant. They need to ensure production and throughput to meet their current demands. They also need to adjust to changing market demands for the various products that they're producing. They have spent their careers making sure the plant runs and produces the products that are in demand and meet quality and quantity requirements. But what happens when they’re asked to create a new unit or expand or upgrade their existing facilities? They're now being asked to enter the realm of project development and project management. These are disciplines that require skill, experience and practice to be effective. It's a bit like asking a race car driver and a pit crew to design and build a better car while the race is underway, to say the least. That's a real challenge.

Q. What happens when a chemical operation doesn't have adequate project-development capabilities?

A. Well, the interesting thing about it is that the operating companies often have qualified personnel to operate and maintain the facilities, and they're also qualified to assess the effectiveness of their plan to ensure the throughput and flexibility of their equipment to meet the production needs. They are invaluable to the process of developing the project as they have the hands-on experience to know what needs to be improved in the operation. But they often struggle as project developers or managers in addition to their day job because, like any other discipline, project work requires practice and focus, both of which are sacrificed when it's treated like a part-time job. Some of the top reasons for project failure have been identified as little to no planning, lack of clarity, poor communication, scope creep, lack of risk management and over-allocated resources. All of these are addressed by effective project development. Project development is a higher-order process whose purpose is to ensure the goals of the project are well-defined, and all the necessary resources are in place to achieve those goals. 

"I think one of the biggest challenges is the belief that process safety is a cost rather than an integral part of the operation."

Q. Can you talk a little bit about some of the key steps to a project development plan?

A. Project development tends to fall into four broad categories. The first is discovery. To me, it’s the most important, but each one is important. Discovery is often accomplished with studies that may look at feasibility, value vs. cost or a specific aspect of a project, such as risk and safety.

The key to project-development discovery is to ensure that the entire scope is identified regardless of what entity may accomplish that specific scope. In this stage, it is all about what needs to be done to refine and accomplish the owner's objectives. Next, you move to allocation. This is where you start looking at who is going to do what or what entity is going to do what. It's still early in the process. There are many deliverables that come out of an allocation, but the critical ones look at the division of responsibilities. And the third key is risk-management planning to ensure that what might happen is anticipated by the project team and plans are in place to respond to these threats or opportunities of things that might occur.

The process delivers the plan to succeed in delivering the owner's objectives. Now, you're ready for a kickoff, and that's when you really transition to a project-execution phase. The primary deliverable of project developers in this phase is the codification of the execution plan into the execution of the project, ensuring that all the discovery and allocation definitions are well understood and accepted by the stakeholders. This kickoff is often accomplished over a period of time as it transitions from the project developers to the project managers. Like any transition, it requires feedback between the parties to ensure that nothing is missed or misunderstood, and there will be adjustments that need to be made during that period.

And then, during the process of execution, the project developers perform quality-assurance activities. They primarily look to capture preventative techniques and proactive measures to improve the development process, so the next similar project will be an improvement over the last project. Development is a discipline, like any discipline, that requires both practice and learning. The quality-assurance step is critical to determine what worked or what could have been done better.

Q. Safety is important, obviously, in a processing environment. How can chemical manufacturers address safety within a project development plan?

A. I think one of the biggest challenges is the belief that process safety is a cost rather than an integral part of the operation. Oftentimes, the safety group is seen as a roadblock to the project. Some of this is due to this lack of identification early on with the studies necessary to develop the project. When you narrowly define the objectives of the project and don't have solid discovery, you lose the opportunity to avoid process safety risk and instead are constantly reacting to and trying to mitigate them. It's a bit like building the race car and then trying to protect the driver only after the car has been built. At that point, everything you do is likely to restrict the car from performing the way the car designer was expecting.

Conversely, if the risks are studied before the car is built, they may be reduced in ways that do not have a significant effect on performance and do not degrade that performance. I won't say they'll enhance the performance, but if you think about it, if the driver is less focused and less concerned about his safety because of the inherent safeguards in the car, he's going to be more focused on the race. And that's the way we need to look at it from a chemical-processing standpoint, as well. The ultimate goal is to produce the products people consume. And by getting safety involved early and driving toward an inherently safe plant, that gives chemical processing operations a much better opportunity to do that.

Q. Can you talk a little bit about the process aeSolutions has developed to help organizations with the project-management process?

A. Our project-development engineers work through discovery allocation kickoff and quality assurance as a partner to our clients and to our project teams and theirs. This works well because it ensures practice and learning for all the stakeholders. It drives a positive start with a focus on planning a clear and well-communicated scope, a solid risk-management plan, and division of responsibilities designed to properly allocate resources to all the scope requirements. On that last point: We believe in the best athlete for the event, or in this case, approach. If the team already has the strongest players for a given task, then we're definitely going to use their skills. But we'll use third parties and team with the owner, and at times with the owner service providers, to build a solid team, which is what drives project success. Going back to the car analogy, it’s like designing and building a car following a well-organized process for the project team to deliver a vehicle that keeps the operator safe while driving peak performance in the race environment. This, in turn, positions our clients to win the race and be ready for the next one, even if the race conditions have changed dramatically. It just requires another plan and another well-executed project to win that race.

For more information, visit: www.aesolutions.com.

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