Plant builders use design-stage data tools to offset impact of tight skills market

Design-stage innovations such as three-dimensional isometric projections delivering extra detail to field craft are improving schedule performances and reducing the cost of major US capital projects, according to John Fish, director - Project Support Services at engineering and construction firm Ford, Bacon & Davis.

The detail provided by two-sided isometric projections (Isos) could help offset the impact of a decline in skill levels among craft workers in the US, Fish said during a Petrochemical Update webinar on Sept. 1, which also featured strategies from experts at Jacobs, Dow Chemical and HollyFrontier on improving the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) of refining and petrochemical capital projects.

Firms are also applying improved project management processes such as Advanced Work Packaging (AWP) and inputting data on future O&M requirements at the project planning stage, according to the expert panel.

With project activity rising in the US downstream energy industry amid a competitive global market, both owners and EPC companies are looking to enhance the productivity of their plants and project processes.

While feedstock costs account for about 80% of production expenditures in the petrochemical industry, companies can save millions of dollars in capital costs by ensuring that construction and turnarounds are completed on schedule and within budget.

New tools to lift craft productivity

“You cannot solve the problems of the future with the mindset of the past,” said John Fish, director - Project Support Services at engineering and construction firm Ford, Bacon & Davis, and a moderator of the panel. 

“Even with all the hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on technology, we still provide the craft in the field with the same deliverables that were developed well over 60 years ago.”

New methods to deliver instructions to field craft workers, such as 3D-printed plastic models, annotated model shots and field kiosks, could significantly increase labor productivity, according to Fish. 

Skilled craft workers, for example, are largely in favor of using two-sided, 3D isometric projections over traditional one-sided technical and engineering drawings, according to field research by the Construction Industry Institute (CII) which included six focus groups and seven field trials with more than 54 pipe foremen in the US.

To test the survey results, the research team conducted workshops with several different crews and types of industries from the US Gulf Coast to Canada and found significant differences in the productivity levels of workers using the two different types of isometric projections, according to Fish, who headed the research.

On average, workers using two-sided Isos completed their tasks faster (9.4 vs. 11.1), made fewer errors (0.29 vs. 0.57), performed more direct work (tool time) (72% vs. 63%) and spent less time doing indirect work (preparation) (24% vs. 33%).

 Source: Ford, Bacon & Davis.

Cognitive spatial tests among the field workers also identified a large difference between the productivity levels of high-performance and low-performance workers when using a one-sided Iso, and almost no difference between the two groups when using the two-sided Iso.

 Source: Ford, Bacon & Davis.

Moreover, using two-sided Isos led to 16% faster installations, labor savings of 14% and higher return on investment on average.

“What this means is that we have a problem today with less trained people in the field. We don’t have the skilled workforce that we used to have,” Fish said. “The two-sided Iso, and things like the two-sided Iso, can help level that playing field and actually improve productivity.”

 Source: Ford, Bacon & Davis.

Integrating all aspects of a capital project

To improve the construction performance of its capital projects from concept to commissioning, Jacobs is using Advanced Work Packaging (AWP) – a back-to-front project planning and execution process for defining, sequencing and pacing the execution of E-P-C packages that integrates work packaging with engineering, procurement, construction and project controls, said Dale Adcox, global work face planning manager at Jacobs.

AWP can improve the most volatile aspects of a capital project, including craft availability and productivity, material laydown, construction sequence and scheduling. The process begins in FEL2 and is further refined through each project phase.

Jacobs’ AWP, J-AWP, begins by analyzing the client’s business objectives and requirements before assigning the construction team to sequence the work accordingly, whether for modular or stick-built construction.

The project then gets the buy-in from the engineering team before it is coordinated with the procurement/contracts management to ensure the materials will be delivered at the site within budget and according to schedule.

Jacobs prefers to work package projects around the construction sequence rather than around the management of the materials, Adcox said. This prevents the company from starting field work too early and allows it to complete a sequence with minimum rework.

Once the procurement and contracts have been signed off, the project controls team helps with the budget and estimates, based on the approved field plan, and how to turn that over to the client.

The best way to perform AWP is by integrating the project data across the six different rounds that support construction planning – QA/QC, turnover, engineering model, material management, scheduling and project controls, Adcox said.

This allows the project team to offer better transparency and more accurate and detailed data – both internally and to the client – as well as better predictability about the schedule, improved productivity, and overall performance.

“With these aspects – client input through completion – we see improved quality and improved safety,” Adcox said. “If we do a better job of sequencing the work, and engineering understands what exactly their deliverables need to be to support vendor fabricators, we are also seeing a decrease in revisions.”

Dow’s project productivity plan

To reduce costs and improve its capital project and expansion project productivity, Dow Chemical has been optimizing its work processes for about 20 years, said Deborah McNeil, project productivity program manager at Dow.

On the systems side, the company has invested in smart-plan 3D models and associated engineering tools, including a new SAP Solution software.

 Source: Dow Chemical.

Dow Chemical performs about 30-70% of its engineering in-house, outsources the rest during project peaks and brings it back in-house during the chemical trials. The company typically conducts its own FEL, procurement and construction management, and outsources the construction labor on its projects.

To coordinate all project functions, Dow has started an Information and Material Flow Optimization Project (IMFOP) across the project lifecycle – from the FEL to the hand-off to the Operations & Maintenance, including Facility Data Maintenance agreements to support the “next” project, McNeil said.

The program plans to create a single data entry point for its capital project activities, align the data definition and understand who owns it across the project lifecycle, as well as reduce the manual re-entry of data, simplify its data gathering and reporting, and understand how and what information is used downstream in the project cycle.

Dow is also using the IMFOP vision to optimize how to combine data documents and image “packaging” to drive increased productivity of all disciplines and functions, McNeil said (see graphic below).

 Dow’s 2020 productivity improvement objectives. Source: Dow Chemical.

Moreover, since materials and construction labor account for the biggest expenses in its capital execution, Dow is changing the way it designs and procures for projects in order to improve the construction productivity and O&M performance of its assets.

To do so, it is going to the back-end of its work process to first help the engineering teams understand the needs of the O&M teams, and then moves up the project supply chain to understand the processes that construction needs to build, any additional materials it needs to buy, as well as any out-standing deliverables engineering needs in order to accomplish the design.

“The turnover of data has to start early, before engineering is even done. What we are discovering is that the maintenance data of a plant in our system needs to occur back in early detailed design, before we even start buying equipment,” McNeil said.

“We have several questions around what the software vendors do – we have to be able to understand what data we have already passed downstream to another system and how we manage change around that data as decisions get made and things get changed as design evolves. The whole change of management at the data level is where technology really helps.”

To hear more insights about effective capital project execution, tune in to the webinar recording “Strategies to Enhance the Cost & Schedule Performance of Refining & Petrochemical Capital Projects.”