Design First – Build Later

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Design First!

Sounds simple. It makes sense. But far too many people do not do this. They put together an idea, a process, but fail to take the design to completion before starting to build. Cutting corners always comes at a price. There is an old saying in Project Management, “You can have it Good, Fast or Cheap, pick any TWO”. Cutting corners will bump your cost, decrease quality, or possibly both.

A while ago I was tasked with designing and building a system for groundwater and soil remediation. The science was basic. The groundwater contained multiple hydrocarbons including both light ends and DNAPLs and the soil above the water line also contained volatile hydrocarbons that were creeping up from the contaminated water. We had made many of these in the past, and since. The issue was not the remediation science, the issues were in the complexity of the system and the physical constraints of the project.

I have made countless containerized systems, where you fit the equipment into standard, or in some cases high cube, 40 foot long ISO shipping containers. This is a very effective method as it allows the system to be easily shipped anywhere while providing a safe, robust enclosure for the system to operate. ISO containers are also quite plentiful, and reasonably priced, making the economics of their use is advantageous.

The First Issue

The container needed to be compartmentalized. We were going to be bringing in groundwater that contained various hydrocarbons, some of which were light end and volatile. The part of the container that housed the incoming feed piping from the wells, the oil water separator, and the double wall tank for hydrocarbon storage was a Class 1 Div 1 enclosure. The remainder was General purpose and housed the valve banks, the controls, and an air compressor to run the Sparge Lines.

Noise was not allowed. Seriously, the system was to be used close to a residential area and we had to make it run at below 60 dB. This complicated the space issue. We built a small room around the compressor, and then had to install multiple acoustic attenuators within the container including a Helmholz Resonator on the ventilation fan and on the intake louver for ventilation. Each box was six feet long, four feet high, and two feet wide.

Real estate was at an absolute premium. Which leads to:

The Second Issue

The second issue tying in with the first was the complexity of the system. We needed to control the whole system from within the General Purpose room. Therefore, every incoming line had to pass through the barrier between the two rooms, receive its necessary process controls and be measured, then pass back to the Class 1 Div 1 room. We accomplished this with two separate Valve banks. One on either side of a quarter inch A36 steel plate with full couplings welded into it. The plate was a eloquent solution that was removable for maintenance.

Class 1 Div 1 Valve Bank
Class 1 Division 1 Valve & Gauge Bank

The first picture shows the Class 1 Div 1 side of the enclosure. The operators needed to be able to monitor pressures in real time and have full, instant shut off control of each line from within that enclosure. The solution was simple, robust, effective and practical. It looks simple, and it is, but it is what we had on the other side that makes it somewhat, insane.

controls and instrumentation valve bank
Controls & Instrumentation

And here we have the backside. Each line incorporated both controls and instrumentation. The operators have full system knowledge and oversight from the control room. Being general purpose, the solenoid valves were demonstrably more economical than their Class 1 Div 1 counterparts would have been. Considering the number of them, this saved the Client a small fortune. The blue plate in the first picture can be seen high up on the wall. This was an extremely complex piping spool to build. The secret to the success of the build was the effort put into the design. Design First. Then Build.

And just to be complete, here is the third valve bank in that system.

valves and gauges
Valves & Gauges on Pump Lines

The SolidWorks Advantage

The shear number of components, the routing, the supports, make this virtually impossible to design by hand. Not only did everything have to fit, it must be easy to operate, and easy to maintain. We always design with the Operator and Maintainers in mind.

Using the 3D CAD package, SolidWorks, we were able to complete a full design, and test that design for operational requirements. It is also quite handy that SolidWorks will generate an accurate and complete Bill of Materials to make Purchasing happy.  There are a number of high quality 3D packages out there, I simply prefer SolidWorks.

Moral of the Story

Generally, the later in the Project lifecycle that we make mistakes, the more costly those mistakes are. For example, any work done in the field costs at least three times as much, in both time and money, as work in the shop. It is better to make your mistakes on a computer screen where the correction only costs you a few minutes, then it is during testing when you have to rip out a Valve Bank and delay delivery to the Client.

Design first – Then Build Later. That sounds simple, but many do it backwards, and pay for it. If halfway through the build your tradesmen are coming to you with suggestions of how to better design the system, you have already failed. A good designer will always run his ideas by his colleagues on the floor and get their input while the design is still on the screen. These guys work hands on eight hours a day, five days a week. They know what works and what doesn’t. They are one of your most valuable assets as a Design Engineer. Once completed, hand the drawings to the Manufacturing Manager to be red-lined, then to the Quality Manager for a similar review. Yes it will take an hour or two of their time, but they will invariably catch mistakes, or make suggestions, that will save many more hours and dollars during the build, and may frustrations for the Operators down the road.

Design First – Then Build.


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My Best Guy

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Don’t Promote Your Best Guy!

Leadership
Leadership, from where you least expect

You have a facility, a factory, a workshop. And in your shop you have many different positions, a diversity of training and experience, a plethora of people. Each of them is working to become masters of their trades and professions. Each person has a finely tuned technical skill set. Each person applies that skill set differently in the workplace, reacting the specifics of each project they contribute to. All is well.

We watch our people, we train them, we assess them and rate them. Hopefully we also actively participate in their professional development. Often when we do, it is usually a matter of sending them to trade shows or industry specific training like an ASME 31.3 course. This is all good. But this is not enough.

Now a position opens up in your shop for a foreman or area manager. Who do you promote to that position? The standard answer, unfortunately also the wrong answer, is usually “My Best Guy”, or Girl as the case may be. But you are asking “why is this wrong?”. Why is the best worker in the department, the most skilled tradesman/woman, the highest educated PhD engineer not the person to lead the team? Surely they would know the most about the work the team is doing and be the go-to person for the most difficult technical decisions.

Yes they probably are the go-to guy for the TECHNICAL decisions, or at least for technical consultation. Why did I differentiate that? They may be more technically skilled than the rest of the team combined, maybe the world authority in their field, but that does not mean they are the best choice to lead the team.

Leadership and Management are Separate Skill Sets

The best person to lead a team is a team leader, not a technician. Leadership is a skill set. Management is also a skill set. There is a difference between project management, operational management and discipline management as well. They are similar, but different enough that, for example, a skilled and experienced project manager will have a learning curve to deal with when handed a maintenance management position.

And yes leadership and management are separate entities. They are not separate jobs, but separate skill sets. Management is about organization. Leadership is about buy in and team building. We can become great leaders and horrible managers, or vice versa. And neither of those skill sets are technical.

The Fallout

When we take a highly skilled technician and put them in charge of a group, a couple of things will happen. The first thing is that they will be overbearing in their technical opinions. They don’t do it on purpose, but they know that they are the experts. People have been coming to them for advice for a very long time. They will tend to cling to the technical part a little too tightly and not give their people room to grow and perform. Letting go of the technical part and leaving it to my technical team was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn when I made the transition from the bench to the desk.

The second thing that happens is the technician is not inundated with management tasks. He/she now has to organize work, plan, schedule and budget. These are skill that must be learned. Often, during our professional development of these people, we have given them only technical courses and left off the business courses entirely. A skilled, highly trained, experienced electrical engineer is no better at management than an average person walking in off of the street. They need training!

Then there is the dreaded soft skill shortfall. Let’s be brutally honest. Technicians and engineers are not overflowing in people skills. Leadership is a people skill set. Leadership is team building. Leadership is conflict resolution. A Leader is a father, mother, pastor, cop, judge, doctor, mentor, psychologist, team captain and water boy all rolled up into one. A Leader must wear numerous hats, often at the same time. Leadership is a separate skill set. Having a person in a leadership role that does not have leadership skills will kill your team. Morale will drop, production will suffer, quality will erode, and people will leave. Leaders need to be trained!

Set Up for Failure

When we take our “best guy” and promote him off the bench, we set them up for failure. Think about it. You are the leader and the manager. Your shop has been running successfully, therefore your leadership and management skills are at least somewhat honed. You may very well be an expert. So take that expertise and develop leadership and management skills in every subgroup in your business. Find the people, not who are the best techs, but who are the best leaders and managers. Find them and coach them. Train them and mentor them. Prepare them for the roles of team leaders, foremen, and managers.

And a side note, when you take your best tech and promote them off the bench, you are losing your best technical asset from that team. You are taking an individual that is excelling and contributing as much to the business as is physically possible, and moving them to a position where they will likely be a resource drain and an overall hinderance.

And to answer the question of why I differentiated making technical decisions from consulting on them, the person consulting only has to offer an opinion. The level of responsibility is usually lighter. The involvement is usually less as well. They are usually asked a specific technical question on a specific part of a much larger comprehensive project. As such they only have to consider that small window, and not the whole picture. They can then drill down on a very narrow range of possibilities and consequences. The project manager or lead then takes their advice and makes the decision based on the entire project.

Mentor your people. Train you future leaders and managers today. Professional development is not just technical development. There was a saying in the Military, “it takes 15 years to develop a Sergeant with 15 years experience”. There are no shortcuts. If you need them tomorrow, and you will, train them properly today. Then promote your best “leaders and managers”, and leave your expert techs on the bench.


 

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Curing Automation Myths

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Is Automation for You? 

GUI
Simple GUI for a Sludge Dewatering Screen

Automation is a wonder and a dark art to most of the world. Even companies who have large amounts of automation within their own facilities often have misconceptions about how it works. There, for example, is a tendency to lean towards certain brand names, yet those brands are not necessarily better and are possibly more expensive. Below are five big and common myths in the market place about custom factory automation.

  1. Automation is too expensive, it costs millions.

Actually, automation is surprisingly cost effective these days. Today, computer based controllers are effective, efficient and quite reasonably priced. A simple business model for every automation project will demonstrate its quick payback time, reduced operation costs, reduced manpower and skill requirements, and increased productivity. And it is also important to remember that you don’t take and entire process and turn it into a black box solution. First you look at your obvious bottlenecks in your process and mechanize them. As you work your way through the process gradually automating more and more you start integrating them into a complete system.

For a few decades now there has been a move towards off shore manufacturing based on the super low cost of labour in third world countries. The cost of overseas labour is still cheap but the cost of shipping, of waste, of the absence of quality control, of immense orders and long wait times far out ways any up front cost reductions. There is also the issue of the environment. One of the big cost saving in many of these countries is the complete lack of environmental laws or ecological constraints. We are waking up today, finally and thankfully. The solution to pollution is NOT dilution and just because you pollute over there doesn’t mean it won’t come here. Automation is the industry standard of the 21st century.

Most process plants today are economically viable because of automation. You simply could not afford to run an oil refinery or a water treatment plant without it.

  1. Automation costs jobs.

We do not replace people; we automate tasks. The tasks we automate are the ones that are slow, costly, ineffective and inefficient. Automation frees workers to do more interesting and productive tasks. It also improve a company’s competitive position by increasing throughput and quality while reducing or nearly eliminating waste. This improves sales, improves profits and increases your business’s overall performance and shareholder equity. Automating a factory often creates more jobs as it allows the company to gain a greater market share and provide a higher quality product.

Keep it in the tanks
Keep it in the tanks

Automation, especially in the areas of monitoring, reduce or eliminate environmental compliance issues. Automated sensors and controls allow a plant to discover and mitigate problems at the onset, not after a million gallons have been released to a river or lake.

 

  1. Automation is only for big companies.

Any task or process can be automated. There is no maximum or minimum size or complexity requirement. The same rules apply to all automation; the difference is merely one of scale. Even if it’s just a single part pick-and-place or a wash-down line that needs to be timed, we can automate it to save you time and money. Sometimes it is just one task within a complex manufacturing process that is slowing down overall production; that would be the place to start automating. Maybe you just need your pumps on timers or hooked up to simple level switches or temperature probes in tanks. Small organizations can benefit from automation just as easily as large ones.

  1. This industry has been around forever so there are lots of off-the-shelf solutions.

Truly there are a lot of standard options for mechanization. And where a standard product exists, and would be an appropriate solution, I recommend its implementation. Forklifts are the prime example. They are designed to lift, move and stack pallets, yet people buy them and use them for everything but. They are only safe and efficient in the specific task they were designed for. If what you are moving isn’t a pallet, get a machine that will work better for you and save yourself time, money and frustration.

The glass industry, for example, has been around for thousands of years and yet I have worked on many custom machines for a glass processing. As each business has its niche, so does it have its individual processes. Only a few mass-produced systems are compatible with every process within an industry, leaving large gaps in every production process. A custom automation product, however, is tailored to your specific needs and designed to meet your exact requirements. And it is the system that is tailored, using economical, time tested and proven, off-the-shelf components. You can use the same PLC for controlling a primary treatment screening of residential sewage as you would for controlling a cake manufacturing line. The difference is in the application and programming.

  1. If our process changes the new machine will be obsolete.

If you look at your entire process consulting with your technicians and operators when designing your solutions, you can build in flexibility for expansion. The machine you will get will not only be based on your current need, but it will also be parametrically designed to accommodate foreseeable changes in your product or process to match market variations and changes. For example, allowing for differences in sizes of product can allow a machine to fulfil its task for decades.

With automation, the machines are always designed modularly. This is true for hard automation, flexible automation (robotics) and process automation such as water treatment or chemical plants. As new needs arise or change, new modules can be developed and integrated into the system.

Automation has so many benefits for 21st Century manufacturing and process industries. It can no longer be ignored. The cost of automating has reduced significantly over the years with the increased performance of the computers, sensors.


 

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Corrosion Issues = Planning Issues

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Corrosion is the Fruit of Poor Planning

Rusted Out Foam Chamber
Corrosion and Erosion

Corrosion & Erosion, Hand in Hand

There indeed is a desperate need for a corrosion science. We have all seen perfect, shiny new equipment quickly rot and deteriorate in the field. Put a new motor in a pulp mill and two years later you cannot even read the label on it. String in a new stainless steel spool and a little while later you have pinhole leaks at the welds. To the right you see a fire suppression foam changer on an API 650 storage tank. It is only a few years old, but out in the wind and weather, next to the ocean, it has rotted completely away. Imagine if there was a tank fire. Do you thing that foam chamber would be effective?

In many industrial processes there is a requirement for metallurgical engineers to investigate, research and develop solutions for safe handling of chemicals. In larger industrial settings there is also a need for the assistance of corrosion specialists when integrating numerous pieces of varying equipment into a process. For example if you are transporting hydrofluoric acid at 300 Celsius through a pressurized pipe, you get an expert to tell you how. For many process situations we do have regulatory bodies and industry standard associations to help us. ASME, API, NFPA etc are perfect examples.

Outside of the Extreme

There is however another facet of the corrosion game. Many corrosion issues we face daily in industry have extremely simple solutions. Most are caused by an abject failure to educate ourselves before making decisions. All that is required is a little reading. There are untold resources, free and available at your fingertips if you have Internet and can type. There are some basic consideration that can save you a fortune and a lot of pain downstream.

Common Galvanic Corrosion

galvanically corroded boltsFirst is the problem of dissimilar metals. In general this is a BAD thing. When you are forced to use contacting dissimilar metals the first thing to note is the relative nobility of the metals. The further apart that number is, the fast one of them is going to rot away. This is further exacerbated by the amount of water present, and the amount of electrolytes in that water, and the temperature. For example if you have warm municipal wastewater, with a low pH, full of various salts as it always is, travelling through a carbon steel pipe and  you need to divert it with a hose, and decide to use an aluminium cam lock fitting. (Yes I have seen that done on more than one occasion) That decision will come back to haunt you in a few weeks. I know of another example in an oil refinery where they decided to use a titanium tube bundle in a heat exchanger. The feed pipe to the exchanger was 18 inches in diameter, to give you an idea of the scale we are talking about. The shell was about six feet in diameter and about 30 feet long. They did everything right except electrically isolating the dissimilar metals. The shell of the exchanger and the pipes feeding it were carbon steel. It was not long before they had to replace the shell and ten feet of pipe on either side.

The Process Side of Things

The next notable consideration is the chemical compatibility of your materials to your process flow. There are many tables online to help. And always, and I mean always, consult chemical compatibility tables when choosing materials for piping, fittings, tanks, vessels etc. For example, did you know that ketchup will eat through PVC piping? I didn’t either until I consulted a chemical compatibility table. What goes with what, and what doesn’t are not always intuitive. Similarly, many people mistaking think that stainless steel is stainless. It is simply corrosion resistant, under certain conditions. The rejects from a Reverse Osmosis desalination system will eat through 316 SS. You would need at the very least a 2205 duplex, or preferably a 2507 super-duplex.

Operating Conditions

Then you must consider the temperature and temperature variation. And it is not just for the acceptable temperature range of the material, you must also consider the coefficient of  thermal expansion, and the relative thermal expansion coefficients when dealing with differing materials. Laminations can peal off with heating and cooling. Piping can buckle, fitting can be snapped off. I have seen it happen. And it is not just a one time thing, it might last for a couple of months, but with each temperature cycle you get fatigue building up. Then one day, on a long weekend, you get called in to clean up because a fitting broke and nobody can figure out why.

What Else?

There is also the issue of coatings. There are many corrosion resistant coatings available for different applications. Here I definitely suggest calling the experts. And supplier of coatings should have in-house experts that will recommend the best coatings for your application if you give them accurate details up front. There are also more advanced solutions like Cathodic and Impressed Current Protection. They may seem like black magic to some, but they can work wonderfully. For example, when we replace the floor on one of our crude storage tanks, we also include a Cathodic Protection and liner. This literally adds years to the life of the tank.

Then there are things like Stress Corrosion Cracking, Corrosion Under Insulation (CUI) and Hydrogen Embrittlement, and my favourite, Microbiologically Induced Corrosion (MIC). In reality, for these you might want to consult and expert.

So for basic corrosion issues, please consult the many free and available documents that can make your life, and the life of your operators and maintainers much easier. They will thank you for it. Well, maybe not but they should. And for those funky situations where the process contains odd chemicals, high pressures etc, consult an expert and save everyone a lot of grief. Remember most corrosion issues are just the fruit of planning errors.

I hope you have found this Engineers Brief to be useful and informative. There are many more to come. Please stay tuned.


 

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