Early plant monitoring lowers risk of soaring repair costs

Repairing broken equipment and functional failures at petrochemical plants could cost companies as much as 20 times more than fixing defects and operational deficiencies early during process operations, according to a reliability and integrity manager at one of the major petrochemical producers in the United States.

Speaking at Petrochemical Update’s Petrochemical Operations, Maintenance & Safety conference on November 18, he said that many of the process equipment breakdowns in the industry are linked to operational deficiencies.

Implementing an effective Operator Care program that prompts plant equipment operators to detect and report problems early improves reliability, quality and safety, and can significantly increase plant profitability by reducing equipment failures and associated costs and downtime, he said.

“Reduced cost does not imply lower reliability, and in fact, if you do the right things in the right order, your costs will go down as a consequence of being more reliable, more effective, and a higher reliability plant,” he added.

Slashing costs and downtime

Failures and breakdowns at petrochemical plants and refineries become more likely as assets degrade over time, making it imperative that operators act as owners of their equipment and partner with maintenance, engineering and management to ensure continuous equipment reliability, he said.

Using an effective operator care program can play an important role early on, when defects are relatively minor and when the reliability of the equipment often depends on how it’s operated, he added. At this stage, operators can often be a valuable resource, supplementing maintenance teams at detecting problems as they spend more time than anybody else around the equipment and can observe it regularly.

Operators are also most effective when the damage is readily apparent with simple tools or the human senses, and are especially effective in cases of random singular failures, which are hard to pick up during preventive and predictive maintenance.

“Some failure modes are under the control of operators only,” the manager said. “Operating the equipment within its reliable operating window is a task that only operators can do.”

Early intervention by operators can cut expenses by up to 20 times the cost of a full failure and can reduce total downtime four times, he added.

Implementing effective OpCare program

Effective operator care, according to him, means that operators know their equipment and operate it within reliable operating limits; perform inspections and tasks regularly and diligently; know how to inspect (and in some cases service) equipment and properly observe it. They should insist on complete and comprehensive maintenance and take all actions to ensure that deficiencies are corrected, he said.

“A vague checklist with no training is not effective OpCare. A site where it is evident that process variables are not monitored is not effective OpCare,” he said. “And an operator round sheet, paper or digital, [which] is never reviewed and gets buried in the supervisor’s desk is definitely not effective OpCare.”

Appropriate OpCare tasks, on the other hand, require setting out a Reliable Operating Window – for example, the task can be as simple as not operating the equipment in a way that will cause damage, he added.

Before assigning OpCare tasks, a company also needs to have the tools and staff, such as reliability engineers or in some cases Operator Care coordinators, to collect and analyze the process equipment data that will be used to make decisions.

Companies also need to ensure they have the right infrastructure for an effective OpCare program, or, most simply, the ability to plan and schedule the corrective action that comes out of process equipment inspections.

Moreover, operator care tasks can only be effective if they target a specific undesirable failure mechanism, add value, and can be taught, repeated and acted upon, the manager said. They also need to complement, and not conflict, with operators’ primary duties.

“Effective operator care is an essential part of a major culture change [at the company],” he said.

“If you don’t have an operator care program, you are at least somewhat reactive. Culture change requires commitment, requires effort, requires a plan. But it is also one of the highest return on resources expended activity that you can do.”

Change management and effective OpCare require high-level awareness about the goals, executive-level buy-in, developing individual desire among operating personnel, according to him. Effective training must develop knowledge and turn it into skills, while management should constantly reinforce OpCare using appropriate KPIs to drive performance, he added.