February 2021


Reliability: Plan startups wisely and involve SMEs

DE, a retired former colleague of mine, recounted his experience as an expert witness for ABC in litigation against XYZ. (Note that I picked the letters A through M for the plaintiff’s side; N through Z are assigned to the defendants.)

Bloch, Heinz P., Hydrocarbon Processing Staff

DE, a retired former colleague of mine, recounted his experience as an expert witness for ABC in litigation against XYZ. (Note that I picked the letters A through M for the plaintiff’s side; N through Z are assigned to the defendants.) Defendant XYZ was an overly optimistic, perhaps moderately negligent, supplier of bulk raw material to ABC, the plaintiff. The plaintiff’s profitability depended on the uninterrupted flow of raw material from XYZ, which was the manufacturer of malfunctioning turbomachines that were clearly involved. The startup was delayed, and the unforeseen consequential losses for ABC were far-reaching.

ABC had hired DE as its expert machinery reliability witness. In his role, DE had to explain to the litigants what ailed the big process machines and why these, or similar large compressors and steam turbines (FIG. 1), are known to operate well elsewhere. DE and his contributing colleague, FG, uncovered little or no data on the success or failure of whatever actions XYZ’s machinery engineers had taken to get satisfactory performance from the machines at XYZ. However, the plaintiff’s team did not uncover any documents indicating how XYZ’s owners had determined labor requirements to support equipment startup efforts.

FIG. 1. Large steam turbine driving a turbocompressor.

Be this as it may, DE and FG began poring over thousands of documents after being engaged by the law firm representing ABC. To make a long story short: XYZ had failed to meet its contractual obligation to deliver bulk raw material to ABC because the very large turbomachinery trains failed during startup.

The two parties settled out of court after it became clear that XYZ had revamped its major machinery trains and missed the startup deadline by a significant period of time. The company had been warned well ahead of time that its fast-track startup schedule was unrealistic. Unsurprisingly, defendant XYZ had encountered several troubles stemming from mechanical problems with a reputable manufacturer’s machines. The dry gas seals in its compressors had failed because no one had paid attention to the steam turbines’ slow-rolling requirement. General organizational disarray was evident; organizational disarray is often caused by too many cooks spoiling an entire meal.

No access to management

For hydrocarbon processing plants to thrive, subject matter experts (SMEs) must have direct access to upper management. If their findings and concerns are being filtered by the various layers between persons empowered to make risky decisions and those enabled to offer sound experience-based advice, the tracks are set for a collision with reality.

“As a matter of fact,” said DE a year later, “I was offered up to XYZ’s executive VP, along with another machinery SME, to do a one-day cold-eye review of this fiasco. The VP was sent to the facility to determine if corporate headquarters would authorize the plant to attempt a restart. ABC was also in a bad way due to XYZ not delivering bulk raw material per their contract, and the issue even drew regional newspaper headlines.”

DE recalled that the seal gas piping for the dry gas seals had been fabricated from carbon steel and had not been cleaned after installation. All of the dry gas seals failed on startup. The compressor manufacturer made its share of mistakes and could never deliver the unrealistic schedule outlined by XYZ. It was suspected that the schedule had been determined using a proposal made by KLM, an experienced vendor that had issued a bid not favored by XYZ. Instead, XYZ had bought machines from NOP and then expected its staffers to perform like KLM.

The various defendants also had internal problems. Although not quite obvious, the reviewing SMEs sensed that there had been dissent regarding the schedule. Regrettably, their cultures did not allow for the voicing of divergent opinions and, during the discovery phase of litigation, DE and FG found no potentially “career-limiting” remarks. Yet, their overall impression of a startup gone wrong was supported by an entry from NOP’s field service engineer: “I don’t feel the love…”

The two reviewers were left with the impression that everybody towed the line, and one of the two is now putting the finishing touches on a 300-plus page book on the topic of how to implement a successful startup. It will offer a great number of detailed startup checklists to those who are willing to read and listen. HP

The Author

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