Stability - The #1 Key to Plant Performance

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University excels in teaching the theoretical knowledge that allows chemical engineers to calculate the key performance attributes of individual pieces of equipment and the ability to analyse data. One key area which it does not focus on is the proper strategies for actually running a processing plant.

There are lots of different strategies depending on the focus of the site, whether its quality (pharmaceuticals), quantity (commodities), profitability (everywhere), or any number of other priorities. The one aspect that is extremely important, and one that is sadly lacking at a lot of processing plants is stability.

In a lot of industries a specific site is given a production rate in which the company is able to comfortably produce, as over-producing is considered a waste - there is no point producing more product than customers require. However, in commodity driven industries where there is much larger demands from customers, there is almost always the driving force from business leaders to produce as much as possible. This inevitably leads to processing plants being pushed beyond their capabilities, result in waves of production. Record production is constantly being met with ever improving techniques/control quickly followed by equipment failures as units are pushed further than they ever have before.

After the equipment failures and management seeing the lower production figures the next decision is often to push the plant hard again to ensure the production targets are achieved.

This kind of ‘see-saw’ pattern is common in some processing plants, however it makes life very difficult for operations and maintenance, as well as chemical engineers trying to run the site.

Focusing on plant stability at a production rate that the equipment is designed to handle will actually result in higher production. Although the peaks will be removed, a significant number of the troughs will as well, resulting in an average greater than before.

Being able to achieve a stable operation can be difficult, although there are many ways to achieve it:

  • Introducing more advanced control systems
  • Removing the focus from record-breaking days
  • Lowering the production target
  • Changing the ‘push’ mentality through training and education

By having a stable operation, the process noise will be removed from the data, allowing process improvements to be more easily identified, troubleshooting to be far easier, and all forms of justification to be more accurate. It also helps operations to better understand their daily tasks, and maintenance can focus on preventative tasks instead of being run off their feed with reactive work. All of these benefits add up to result in significant cost reductions and improved profitability.

 

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