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Article   |   Shervin Sadeghi   |   29.03.2021

10 years on from Deepwater Horizon: Has asset maintenance planning evolved?

April this year marked a full decade since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the US Gulf of Mexico (GOM) and, while significant improvements have been made in the years’ since, it is an event the industry will never forget

As well as leading to the death of 11 individuals and physically injuring 17 others, the incident caused serious environmental damage. This was also a tragedy that also provided some crucial learnings in terms of the importance of offshore maintenance regimes.

A report1 published in 2016 by the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) stated that a key factor leading to the incident was the failure of one of the emergency disconnect systems within the blow out preventer (BOP).

According to the report, a miswiring had caused a critical battery to drain, impacting the part of the BOP responsible for shearing drill pipe and sealing a wellbore, which was unable to be initiated.

While not singularly responsible, this contributed to one of the largest environmental disasters in US history; one that could have been avoided.

The perfect storm

A decade on and risks associated with a failure to prioritise critical maintenance can still be found across the world, both in the offshore oil and gas industry, as well as onshore – across refining, petrochemical and manufacturing facilities, and onshore upstream oil and gas assets. North America has been particularly affected in recent times.

According to S&P Global Market Intelligence, North American oil and gas companies cut more than $15 billion from their spending plans in 2020 as they grappled with the fallout of an international price war and falling demand due to coronavirus. A proportion of this spending cut has seen maintenance budgets slashed.

The pandemic hasn’t just impacted maintenance budgets either. It has also limited workforce capacity too, restricting the hundreds and thousands of contractors typically drafted in to support major maintenance programs.

Combined, these circumstances have created a critical backlog in maintenance tasks; one that could result in equipment failure, asset downtime, and critical health and safety issues.

Assessing priorities

A key factor driving this problem is that many facilities operate with a legacy maintenance strategy and plan. Often, these strategies have not been updated in-line with changing production, commercial realities and lifecycle of the asset.

Information on asset criticalities maybe out of date or incomplete, resulting on lack of data on key equipment. The result is that generic maintenance is performed at time-based intervals, often based solely on the recommendations of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

This results in excessive backlog, or worse inappropriate maintenance (or lack of) on critical equipment leading to key maintenance being delayed or, in some cases, not performed at all, which can increase the possibility of unforeseen equipment breakdown, impacting production performance, cost and safety.

When it comes to maintenance programs, asset operators frequently have to make decisions regarding essential versus non-essential maintenance. While the aforementioned OEM recommendations can help, on their own they can also lead to unnecessary maintenance burdens, and place significant pressure on asset teams and operational budgets.

Consider your car as an example. How often do you change the oil? While all vehicle owners know this is important to a car’s health, failing to do it on time could void your warranty. But who decides what ‘on time’ means? And doesn’t this depend on a range of factors – for instance, the age of the car, type of oil you use and the driving conditions in which you use it.

Looking back, when the market was buoyant, the industry was habitually very reactive to maintenance issues because it could afford to be. This age-old problem of, effectively, throwing money at a problem – due to the pressures of sustaining uptime and maintaining production – is a costly strategy; one that can impact other equipment and workflows, and require more non-productive time to resolve. Today, the industry cannot afford this approach.

We know from our experience, for example, that as much as 40% of maintenance work carried out by FPSO (Floating Production and Storage and Offloading) vessel operators, for example, is unnecessary. On average, operators could be spending 500 man-hours per specific equipment group (such as an electric motor supporting a compressor or a centrifugal pump) on maintenance activity that fails to reduce the risk of failure or preserve facility uptime.

We want to work with our industry peers to get them to a place where critical assets are identified and prioritized, and where criticality is combined with an asset’s operational data to establish appropriate maintenance plans and frequency. The time freed-up by reducing unnecessary repairs can then be used to focus on critical equipment instead. As well as reducing maintenance backlogs, this can also have a positive impact on cost, safety and productivity.

Carrying out the appropriate amount of maintenance at the appropriate time also means putting less people at harm, and avoiding the introduction of maintenance-driven equipment infant mortality, where equipment fails shortly after maintenance is performed.

A change of approach is needed

Key to being able to understand and optimize maintenance is data. By leveraging data, you gain a better understanding of equipment; including its history, usage and variables such as corrosion, vibration, failure and consequence. Armed with these insights, you can predict, plan for and mitigate failure.

There is a perception that it can be both time-consuming and costly to ensure maintenance strategies fit commercial and safety objectives, whilst complying with the expectations of the regulator, but that is a myth we have disproven.

For example, over the past year, we have supported two refineries in reducing their maintenance burden by 25-40%, through evaluating the maintenance programs on their pressure relief devices, refinery wide. The benefit of this approach is that, while the overall maintenance burden has been reduced, the goal is not simply doing less maintenance, but prioritising appropriate maintenance at appropriate levels.

By taking into account operational metrics, as well as reviewing equipment criticality and reliability, the maintenance team has been able to free up resource from equipment with a good quantitative basis for extended intervals, to focus instead on maintenance-hungry ‘bad actors’ and the equipment most likely to fail, identifying root causes and establish a more appropriate maintenance strategy. Reliability has also been improved as a result of performing appropriate maintenance.

What this shows is that the cycle of money and vital resources being wasted on ‘non-essential’ maintenance work can, and must, be broken. By adopting a risk-based, data-centric approach, operators can prioritise maintenance, reduce the backlog whilst ensuring the safety of their people and the performance of their assets.

Downstream Chemical and Refining Industries

Downstream Chemical and Refining Industries are an essential link in their companies supply chain to supply products to their customers. Their manufacturing performance is connected to their customers receiving their orders on-time and in-full. Their asset performance must meet the challenge of being available and reliable for production as scheduled to fulfil the plant operating goals.

Shareholder value creation and competition drives tighter margins and places pressure on operating and accordingly maintenance budgets. How asset care is executed impacts productivity and costs. A comprehensive asset care strategy is vital to optimally deliver reliable equipment design and execute care from design to retirement. Given the equipment life cycle needs and resources available to each site, their asset care strategy determines how effective and efficient equipment care is executed.

These strategies are often far from completely developed and ineffectively executed at many sites. Many sites are reliant on reactive care from a lack of focus on eliminating failure. The causes of this reactive strategy include lack of training, parts, care tasks, work practices, and long-term discipline.

The full development of asset care strategies for these sites is a focus for our services. We understand the “science of failure” and how to apply sound principles and best practices at our client’s site to ensure their maintenance plans account for the operational portion of the equipment life cycle.

We do understand the importance of building reliability into their equipment during the design, construction, and installation phases of the life cycle. We can provide work practices processes integrated during the capital investment phases. However, often our work is focused on the opportunity to improve their performance once their assets have on their power turned on. During this operational phase we provide proven benchmarked best practices for predictive, preventative, protective, operational, and material management tactics to ensure both high availability and reliability of their equipment.

We first engage our clients to determine their view of where they believe opportunities exists to meet their role in the supply chain. We find that maintenance personnel have difficulties in translating equipment performance gaps into financial benefits for the business. We understand the leverage that improved uptime can deliver to improve market share, optimize labor utilization, and modify production schedules. They directly impact the bottom line to create shareholder value.

Our work first entails evaluating the current performance of both their maintenance and operations organizations. We look at key metrics such as downtime for critical assets, mean time to repair, mean time to failure, preventative maintenance compliance to name a few. Although in these times of COVID restrictions, we can remotely interview key personnel, review their maintenance systems, and review maintenance execution performance. We request limited observations of daily life in the plant.

We analyze a client’s asset care gaps from benchmarked practices across multiple manufacturers. We attempt to understand their focus on the detection of the early signs of failure. This can include their use of condition-based tools as vibration, thermographic, oil, strobe, and ultrasonic analysis. Especially, we interview operations personnel on their role in caring for the equipment. We know that the operations partnership with maintenance is vital in reducing downtime, the costliest impact from equipment failure. This includes the quality of the startup, run-time, and shutdown procedures. Their involvement in determining, analyzing and reporting failures.

The above activities allow us to develop a business case with attractive returns. The returns are based on how to convert uptime into financial opportunities through improved productivity and reducing costs. We then determine with our clients the best path forward towards an engagement.

Our client work engagement can then evolve in two ways. We can be used to improve asset care strategies by creating and revising preventative maintenance plans, developing weekly inspection lists that focus on the early detection of failure. Through these activities, we are composing the asset care strategy discussed above. In some instances, we review their storeroom inventories to determine if the critical parts are stocks and the quantities are enough given their failure history. Many of these engagements can be done remotely after being provided maintenance data and documentation from the site.

Criticality plays a key role to understand how lean resources are utilized for the most important assets. Generally, 20% of a site’s assets are critical due to safety, health, environmental, productivity, quality and maintenance cost considerations. However, many clients have not taken the time to determine criticality of their assets although corporate guidelines exist to provide guidance. We have been employed to develop critical equipment lists using either the client or our industry-benchmarked procedure. Either remotely or in-person over several meetings, we compile the client’s criticality lists. These are used to prioritize maintenance work, determine which parts to stock, understand which assets need comprehensive care strategies, and identify equipment to be inspected during turnarounds, to name a few.

Another type of engagement is to change to work practices of the site through daily involvement as they are executed. Such as being involved with an upcoming turnaround guiding the site with preparations in order to minimize the downtime which can amount to a large percentage of their overall equipment annual unavailability. We can install maintenance execution work practices that guide planning and scheduling activities. These activities are important to reducing reactive work. We can guide root cause investigations which ultimately reduce reactive work.

Our goal is to ensure alignment of a comprehensive asset care strategy with the achievement of our client’s business goals. We can achieve together improvements in availability and reliability that drive value for their stakeholders through supply chain excellence.

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