Petrochemical firms save millions by automating maintenance files

Turnarounds and capital projects are more complex than ever, and incur significant financial risks, but some owners are finding multimillion-dollar savings by automating manual paper-based processes.

Refiners and chemical plants can save millions by replacing manual processes with automation.

Petrochemical Update spoke with leaders at Dow, BP, Addivant and Appian about the top maintenance and turnaround challenges their teams are facing and the innovative solutions they are using to solve these dilemmas. This insight was created into a whitepaper on operational excellence. 

Glenn Healy of Appian shared a case study about a Refiner who documented a $35 million savings by turning to automation. The savings was for just one turnaround that was spread across seven refineries.

“Each turnaround found there was multimillion-dollar savings in automating the processes and replacing the manual paper based processes,” Healy said.


Chemical industry capital spending continues to surge, reaching $38 billion in 2017 and accounting for one-half of total construction spending by the manufacturing sector, according to the American Chemistry Council (ACC). 

By 2022, U.S. capital spending by the chemical industry is expected to reach $48 billion, nearly two-and-a-half times the level of spending at the start of this prolonged cycle in 2010.

Additionally, U.S refiners are poised to spend at least $1.26 billion on planned maintenance spend in 2018, according to estimates from Industrial Information Resources (IIR).

Boost technology

Healy believes a costly company-wide challenge is having outdated technology, and depending too much on manual systems across a company’s many departments.

As organizations have grown over the years, rather through acquisitions or general organic growth, various departments and technology have been separated into silos. A company may have a stellar maintenance department, another great procurement group, a finance department, but all these lines of business with the organization have their own technology to support their own departments.

“Today the way these systems work, nothing is unified, so this presents a real challenge because there is this white space between the lines of business and departments and people,” Healy said. You can’t see who is doing what and who is working on what. There is a lack of visibility, a lack of control and a lack of agility.”

Automating turnaround tasks reduces non-productive time and ends paper tracking; increases collaboration by showing a full audit history of who is doing what; helps to meet forecasts with real-time access to performance and task completion data.

Automation savings

The refiner that saved millions on that turnaround continues to save millions on each turnaround since then as the owner is now able to optimize resource allocation, inspection, and schedules by maximizing data access without having to log into multiple systems.

This group was spending years in advance, planning for a turnaround when the unit would be shut down 30 plus days. They brought in many contractors and worked them 24 hours around the clock.

Any hour lost, any day lost, cost the organization millions of dollars, Healy said.

Project management tools

When turnarounds are planned, most units are using a planning program such as Oracle or Primavera on front end. But when it gets time to start the turnaround, they print everything on paper for the contractors. The contractors may have 1,000 tasks at a time to complete in a short period of time.

Contractors are not familiar with the standard work flow at the plant, so changes and status reports are particularly difficult, Healy said.

“People don’t know who is doing what, or when. And often times plans must change,” Healy said. “At the end of the shift, someone only finished two of their five tasks and they have to update the system so the new crew coming in realizes where to pick up work and they will in turn spend hours doing the handoff when the new shift comes in.”

This was a bigger issue if a contractor noticed something that needed to be addressed during his shift, Healy said.

“Imagine now if we take information in from Oracle or Primavera, and then we manage those 1,000 tasks, look at who is working on what, how much lag time there is, how long each task took, etc. Based on the decision of that next step, we can go many different ways on that next step. We can build in rules and exceptions,” Healy explained.

The Appian interface can integrate with SAP, Oracle Primavera, Microsoft and more.

Easier handover

When contractors are coming off a 12-hour shift and hand off new areas where they left off. They now have a 5-minute handover versus a one-hour status meeting.

Contractors take photos and do voice recordings on the job. So if they go through a maintenance project, they can add photos and voice to the system, and it is all in one single case easily transferred on to the next person.

When a contractor found a leaky valve that was not part of the maintenance plan, he was able to save time by getting approvals quicker.

“We need to be able to orchestrate an environment where people can gain the visibility of who is doing what, how decisions are made, in real time as well as a historical lookback,” Healy said.

Historical lessons

The historical lookback function has been particularly helpful for groups to understand what went wrong in the past and how to avoid it.

“When we look back at historical turnarounds, often what happens is we have completed this turnaround and it was a 30-day turnaround and we missed our deadline by 5 days, so we ask ‘why did we miss?’ We don’t know. No one knows. We don’t have the answers,” Healy said.

“Everything has been all paper based, so we have to look back at all the paper documents and track back. It becomes an exercise of analysis. Analysis causes paralysis, and nothing gets done,” he added.

Companies want to shave hours off these projects per day and reduce risk from project slippage or unscheduled incidents and that means having the necessary information available at your fingertips instead of having to chase it around the organization, Healy said.