A Team Approach to Resolving Process Upsets

A Team Approach to Resolving Process Upsets
A Team Approach to Resolving Process Upsets

In spite of advanced technology, process upsets unfortunately do occur, and thus they need to be anticipated and quickly controlled to ensure smooth and continuing operations. An upset is the disruption of one or more process-related issues that drive the intended operations of a chemical process. Upsets can be minor, for example incremental temperature increase over time, which can lead to an out-of-spec formulation. The upset could also be major, such as an out of control reaction, which could significantly compromise the plant environment and worker safety if not quickly identified and corrected.
Regardless of whether or not an upset has a major–or minor–impact on operations and/or safety, managing them can be time consuming and diverts the focus of plant management and operations, significantly slowing down production schedules. What makes upsets even more concerning is the amount of time it takes for correction. Investigations and resolution may take hours and overlap more than one shift.
When production teams lack the digital tools needed to access information immediately through knowledge capture and autonomous communications during shift handovers, time is wasted searching for information, generating status updates, investigating results and reporting across disconnected operations and multiple shifts.     
Even more concerning is if the shift relief team cannot access all findings, which can mean a redo of the investigations and operations. Instead of a straightforward resolution of the upset, plant management may be forced to double back and repeat previous efforts.
Every hour that an upset is allowed to persist unresolved due to the lack of key information, profits are impacted and catastrophic safety hazards are created. An operating unit’s response to an upset can be critical to the unit’s process reliability. Often the success and reliability of a unit are measured by how well the organization responds to the upset.

A communication challenge in plant operations

Depending on the size of the operation, there can be several teams, operating over multiple shifts, with staff involved performing a variety of functions. An operation may run 24x7 and thus can be unforgiving when it comes to process issues. A single process plant can consist of more than 60 different personnel and associated functions. It is critical that these groups have the ability to communicate in order to generate a common understanding of what is known and unknown in order to effectively collaborate in solving a problem. 
When plant operations has to create numerous emails while maintaining multiple spreadsheets and documents simultaneously during an upset, the various functions have increasing difficulties in getting an overview of the related issues. In this scenario plant functions can be challenged with numerous sources of information causing them to easily fall into the trap of mistaking assumptions for facts.  For any upset, minor or major, the facts must be readily available and confirmed to ensure the proper response.  This is particularly challenging as shift changes bring new personnel onto the scene.
A symptom is not the problem but rather points to the problem.  A collection of symptoms, fully researched, can identify the underlying problem and leads to a successful outcome. 

Single communications platform creates reliability

As plant upsets are continuous in nature they are not always resolved by the end of a shift. Therefore, managing within a given shift and over shift changes in a 24x7 operation requires a digital solution to deliver a single source of truth. There needs to be a reliable system in place for updating the relief shifts on progress and critical activities.
Plant Process Management (PPM), which relies on digital technologies, provides a platform to brings this “single truth” to all involved. It enables production teams to address process upsets more quickly and effectively, assuring operations are more reliable, dependable and safer.  Achieving continuous stability in the face of consistent process challenges is a measurement of this reliability. 
This single communications platform delivering information to all involved functions significantly enhances the timely resolution of process upsets and ensures that resolution activities are seamlessly delivered across all shift changes. This avoids time consuming repeat investigations and attempted solutions that are deficient.

Digital laggards

A recent survey by 451 Research by 451 Research indicated that many chemical operators are ill equipped for digital knowledge transfer. In terms of PPM solutions, research shows that plants in the chemical industry are, for the most part, digitally deficient in the ability to assure smooth internal/external communications.  Only 10% of the 300 senior executives who responded to a recent survey indicated that their companies are currently in the execution stage of a digital strategy. The majority of these companies are still collecting data via manual means (or not at all).
Companies did indicate, however, that there is a high degree of interest in digital PPM solutions. Safety and process optimization are drivers of corporate goals. The research concluded:

  • Inter-shift and inter-functional communications are typically carried out verbally

  • Off-site personnel are often not directly informed and are brought up to speed by “back-channels”

  • Maintenance and Engineering work are recorded on standard forms, which are then filed away and not readily accessible

  • Paper reports are issued, but may be filed away and eventually forgotten

With the establishment of an “improvement cycle” reliability can be greatly enhanced.  The following four steps support this mission:

  1. Follow the symptoms to Identify the problem

  2. Assure problems are communicated across shifts and to senior management via a PPM Solution

  3. Document all steps taken to solve the upset (corrective action)

  4. Retrospective documentation by assuring that written, not verbal, communications are archived to the knowledge base

Step four is often missed. The retrospective documentation should outline and validate all the actions taken.  People often have a tendency to skip this step – the problem is solved and now it is business as usual. By taking this validation step, in writing, and adding it to a PPM platform, a knowledge base is created that can be used to solve a similar issue or serve as a knowledge repository, accessible to all employees.

Creating a knowledge base integrated with manufacturing software

There is no doubt that COVID-19 has upended the normal way of managing plant processes. With off-site working situations, senior management must be able to contribute from remote locations. Staff can no longer rely on physical access to both documents and personnel. Paper documentation, like spreadsheets, imperil access issues with so many personnel now working in off-site locations.
Digital access simplifies handover tasks from remote engineers to shift teams. No longer does it matter where a particular functional person resides – at the plant, at home, or at another remote site. Investing in software platforms that assure the capture of shift handover information assures transparency, reliability, and visibility across all plant functions and roles–seamlessly integrating critical teams.
It is also now possible to integrate Plant Process Management platforms with other mission-critical systems such as CMMS such as SAP PM or IBM Maximo as well as process historian programs like OSIsoft PI or Aspen IP21 systems. This enables end-to-end process digitalization, and allows an evolution to a more reliable, knowledge-based organization that can respond quickly and thus successfully overcome process upsets. 
Having a digital knowledge base also results in financial benefits. For example, a typical high-volume, commodity operation, say a cumene/phenol plant, can easily realize significant savings by improving their process upset response. A one-day shutdown, or the production of unsalable product, can easily lead to a loss of $100K or more at today’s prices. This is a significant expense, assuming no associated equipment damage is found during inspections or a lengthy re-start is not involved.
Over the long-term, the implementation of digital communications technology can lead to significant improvements in plant process reliability, safety and economic stability.  Leading organizations need to enable their teams with the right technology for the job to minimize the impact of process upsets on operations and ultimately on the financial health of the business.

About The Author

Andreas Eschbach is the founder and CEO of the software company eschbach, which helps production teams stay safe and work smarter through better information sharing and collaboration. Holding a degree in computer science, he draws his practical experience from leading a variety of international software consulting, and implementation projects for leading chemical manufacturing companies, focusing on production, continuous improvement, EHS, and maintenance. His company is a provider of manufacturing solutions and headquartered in southern Germany with offices in Boston, Mass.

Dr. Joel Shertok is president & senior consultant at Process Industries Consultants Inc. He is a chemical engineering/materials consultant with expertise in new product development, commercial manufacturing and chemical process optimization.  Dr. Shertok has leveraged his deep background in multiple technologies, chemistries and varied unit operations to develop programs to create profitable new products, resins, intermediates and processes. He has also developed novel products over multiple technologies, including specialty themicals, carbon fiber composites, biotech-based nutritionals, membrane filtration, ion exchange, and carbon-based separations.  He has a PhD in chemical engineering from Princeton University.

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