Plant modularization used to keep projects on schedule

A solution to the current skilled labor shortage in North American petrochemical construction projects could be a focus on plant modularization, according to industry executives.

Shell Quest Carbon Capture

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EPCs serving the chemical industry and operators across the United States have identified the shortage of skilled craft labor, particularly for craft workers such as welders, pipe fitters, carpenters, scaffold builders, and construction hands, as one of their top challenges to growth in the immediate future.

“If you add all the gas-based projects together, you could have 100,000 craft workers needed just in Texas and Louisiana,” Thomas M. Jones, an executive at Bechtel said while speaking at an industry event “The sustainable number that can be put into the field is between 40,000 and 60,000, so you just cannot see all of these projects going forward.”

The labor shortage is severe enough that projects could be delayed or even cancelled. An alternative to the labor shortage could be a focus on modularization, as exemplified by Shell’s Quest project in Alberta, Canada and Dow’s Gulfstream Program at Dow in Texas and Louisiana.

Modularization as solution to keep projects on schedule
Contractors are moving to avoid expected shortages and delays. In order to keep projects on schedule, they are turning to plant modularization. Modularization involves the construction of pre-fabricated plant modules that can be assembled on-site after the receipt of construction permits.

“One alternative to the labor shortage could be a focus on modularization which reduces site congestion and average construction manpower,” Jones said.

Instead of assembling all of the elements of a plant at the final operations site, the facility's structure is reduced to smaller elements that can be assembled indoors off-site. A module leaves the fabrication plant nearly complete, with most of its support structure, pipe, instrument stands, electrical wiring, grating, fireproofing, insulation and other components built in and ready for operation, once connection is made to the plant's systems.

Transported by truck, rail or ship to the site, the modules then are assembled on-site with other pre-fabricated modules.
“We’re finding that a lot of our projects are considering a modularization component,” Jones said. “But there are important regional differences and higher costs.”

Some industry projects that have used modularization to complete a project include The Kearl Oil Sands project and the Quest carbon capture projects in Canada, The Reficar refinery expansion in Colombia, The Hydrogen plant at Holly Frontier in Tulsa, Oklahoma and the ongoing Gulfstream project by Dow in Texas and Louisiana.

“Modularization reduces the amount of direct and indirect field labor. This can be a reassuring factor in projects that are competing for resources with other projects or simply are limited to local resources,” said Patrick Jameson of CB&I.

Modularization benefits
Business drivers that support module design include remote site access, severe site weather constraints (hurricanes in the US Gulf or arctic temperatures), schedule constraints, and limited availability of regional skilled labor, an executive at Fluor said.

Modularized construction has many positive aspects to consider, according to Ron Key of Linde Process Plants. In a Modularization white paper co-authored with Zaheer Malik, Key says “The modular construction technique is applicable to almost any project. However, it has distinct advantages under certain conditions, such as limited plot space, difficult labor conditions and high labor cost at the plant site, restricted quality of skilled labor at plant site, remote site location, bad weather conditions at plant site such as extreme heat or cold, frozen ground, snow, etc.”

Modularization challenges
Challenges to modularization include increased and earlier planning for logistics, engineering and procurement. There are also increased costs of engineering and shipping and more steel quantities needed.

“Transporting modules across the country requires the talents of an experienced shipping and traffic coordinator. Many places have their own rules that can change with the seasons. In some areas, load size and weight limits can be reduced by as much as 50% during the winter months. Other areas will restrict or prohibit large loads due to holidays, and local celebrations.” Jameson said.

Modularization Projects in Practice Today
The Quest project located at Shell’s Scotford facility near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada is one example of a North American project using modularization building techniques with the help of Fluor. Many offsite workers from welding, pipefitting and scaffolding have been employed.

Fluor is using its 3rd Gen Modular ExecutionSM approach for the 1.1 million tonne/year carbon capture facility. Captured carbon dioxide will be sent about 80 km from the facility via underground pipeline to an underground storage site.

Another example of North American use of modularization is the Gulfstream Program at Dow to expand its facilities on the US Gulf Coast in Freeport, Texas and Plaquemine, Louisiana. Fluor is managing most of the project at Oyster Creek, Texas, which consists of a Propylene Dehydrogenization (PDH) unit, the Power, Utilities, & Infrastructure (PUI) scope, and a state of the art Light-Hydrocarbon (LHC-9) unit. Fluor will recruit a large number of direct-hire craft and construction management staff in order to build the pre-fabricated components of the facility.