Covid-19 brought sudden productivity hikes to chemical operations

While Covid-19 has been mostly associated with negative impacts, particularly on decreased product demand as well as project deferments, the productivity increase is an unexpected positive side.

Covestro Baytown, Texas plant. Image courtesy of Covestro.

New ways to work adopted by petrochemical companies as part of the Covid-19 response resulted in productivity increases so significant that many of the new practices are likely to remain well after the pandemic.

“We’ve seen a peak in productivity especially in the phase of planning and scheduling,” said Victor Ortega, technical site manager for Covestro, during the Petrochemical Update Dowstream Conference 2020 in June.

Ortega’s work involves asset management and turnarounds in Baytown, Texas. Covestro, headquartered in Europe with operations in other areas of the U.S., Mexico, and Asia, resulted from a spinoff of Bayer in 2015.

Walter Pesenti, global operational excellence manager for BP, and Cindy Gross, director of maintenance, reliability and turnarounds at Ascend Performance Materials, reported similarly unexpected improvements.

Ascend Materials is headquartered in Houston. Its assets include five integrated southeast U.S. plants, all for nylon and its intermediates. BP announced in June the sale of petrochemical assets to Ineos.

Time savings, lower costs, safety improvement

Virtual exchanges replaced lengthy physical meetings during Covid-19 to prevent Covid-19 contagion and include those working remotely. The change had the added benefit of slashing needed time and increasing productivity.

Covid-19 completely modified “the way that we have the handover meeting. We used to have a one hour meeting with all the people in the room,” Pesenti said.

Those meetings were cut to “just half an hour and all virtual,” he added. This left more time available for other work.

Safety improvements also contributed to added productivity.

Covid-19 showed that socially distanced workers took more precautions in the much more controlled environment associated with the pandemic. This led to fewer incidents and lower spending, he said.

“Cost is down in many areas,” Pesenti said. “Safety is very good. People are more conscientious.”

Higher contractor quality

Cindy Gross also noted an improvement in contractor’s work quality.

“Right now, because resources are very available, we are getting high quality” and above the normal standards from contractors, Gross said.

With the deferment of construction and turnaround projects, the pool of contractors available greatly increased in the first months of the pandemic.

While Gross anticipates contractor’s availability will soon tighten, particularly in 2021 when demand associated to delayed turnarounds is likely to soar, the temporary effect has been “positive,” she added.

“We definitely saw a bump in the quality of the craftsmen during this time,” she said.

Part of the productivity improvement during the pandemic could have derived from the increased digitization, she added.

“You see a bump in productivity because they are not having to drive to the field and come back,” she said.

Covestro’s Ortega said he observed more motivation to deliver quality.

“We’re also seeing, especially contractors, much more committed (to) better quality but also the spirit to deliver a good product, to engage,” he said.

Time to work on historical problems

The time saved during Covid-19 thanks to shorter meetings and the use of technology to avoid physical movement has been very useful. There was time to tackle old issues.

“We are (…) seeing a lot of engineers addressing some historical problems that we couldn’t address (before) because we never had time,” Ortega said.

“Prior to the pandemic there was the need to jump to the next topic, to the next initiative and because of this some older issues would linger unattended,” he added.

“We’ve been able to develop a lot of the strategies that had been on the shelf for a while,” Ortega said.

Because of the results, the use of technology in the future is likely to be intensified.

“We’re trying to understand how do we best use the drones to do better updates or to coordinate updates,” Gross said.

Changes likely to stay

Changes related to Covid-19 may have a lasting influence, particularly in the way meetings are likely to take place in the future.

“Many of the places where we were insistent that we had to be face-to-face, we needed to be in meetings, we needed to have huge safety meetings to have an impact, we learned that they really weren’t as effective,” Gross said.

Covid-19 showed that “we can do it another way so I think particularly the meeting structure is something that is going to change forever,” Gross added.

Changes “in the way that we do grouping because of the vulnerability of virus” may lead to some policies becoming permanent, she said.

Ortega added that in coming years there will also be more acceptance of working more from home. Covid-19 proved working from home is doable.

“These meetings, that’s going to stay. Working from home (…) that’s going to be more normal,” he said.

By Renzo Pipoli