Downtime? Not with us!

Asset Management

Chemical equipment should be ready to go into operation whenever needed and then deliver top quality. The Asset Lifecycle Management unit at Bayer Technology Services is there to ensure both, on a sound economic basis.

Aviation model: Proper design and optimal data analysis increase fleet availability.

When Carlos Hedler recently purchased a new mixer for his kitchen, he did not just look at the price. Being an electrical engineer with a Master in Business and Administration, it was far more important to him that the new device was solidly constructed of robust materials. “I’ll gladly spend more money for that,” says the native Brazilian. An extra expense that pays off in the end. “What’s the use of saving money if I have to buy a new mixer again in a year?” That not only costs more money but also time. And maybe even nerves, if, for example, the appliance stops working at the exact moment you need it most.

A seemingly banal example taken from a domestic household, but one that clearly reflects the underlying philosophy that plays a key role in Hedler’s everyday professional life. Hedler is in charge of the Asset Lifecycle Management (ALCM) unit at Bayer Technology Services. One way to describe the task of his around forty-member team is that, together with their partners in the Bayer subgroups, they ensure all facilities enjoy the maximum of availability and reliability. This includes reactors, distillation columns, and agitators, as well as such smaller components as pumps, compressors, valves, and pipes. And here, too, it is a question of finding the right solution and not necessarily the cheapest. This is especially true when it comes to ensuring the high operational availability and the long service life of a production facility.

“We had 60 percent less costs during our latest inspection and, as a result, also reduced our production losses.”

Erwin Dieterich

Head of the Antwerp aniline plant, Bayer MaterialScience

The ALCM team’s work begins as early as the designing of a new facility. For example, the preparations for Bayer MaterialScience’s new, world-scale TDI production plant in Dormagen (see technology solutions 2013, p. 26). Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is an important raw material for the flexible polyurethane foam used in upholstery, mattresses, and car seats. People from Hedler’s team were called in when, among other things, various materials were evaluated for certain components that were potentially susceptible to corrosion. “In such cases, we carry out meticulous corrosion testing,” explains Hedler. This involves complex computer modeling covering not only the planned operational conditions but also the characteristics of the individual materials with which specific parts of the system come into contact. “Based on such calculations, we changed the material once again in two instances as opposed to the previous design,” adds Hedler. The pipes for the process water, for example, are now made of corrosion-resistant stainless steel.

This is what is known as “design for reliability.” Although this approach incurs higher costs and greater effort in the detail engineering phase, it pays off at the latest on the day production would, for example, have otherwise come to a standstill due to pump failure or necessary maintenance. Such unplanned downtimes can quickly become very expensive, not only due to the costs involved but also because of loss of production. Every day, for example, a TDI plant produces material worth around a million euros. The aim is for the ALCM experts to have the plant’s total cost of ownership already in mind during engineering.

This approach is nothing less than a change in paradigms.“For a long time now, we in the chemical industry have been focusing on the immediate investment costs,” notes Hedler, who has been with Bayer since 1986 and has already worked on many plants. “That is exactly the way of thinking that we are changing right now.” The long-term calculations, however, do not inevitably lead to the use of the highest quality materials or equipment. Sometimes a cost-efficient solution will also suffice. “Some systems have planned downtimes at relatively short intervals. In such cases, economical components also often ensure production continues,” explains Hedler.

Part of this design for reliability concept is also determining the optimal ranges for certain operating parameters, such as temperature, pressure, and humidity, in the various system segments. Hedler likes to talk about the “right conditions” and also about the “integrity operating windows” (IOW). “Those are the areas in which a plant can be operated with notably little wear and tear, ensuring a long operating time,” he points out and adds, “A major concern is corrosion because of the many metal components. We specifically look for thresholds above which the risk of corrosion significantly increases.” Then, among other things, alarm systems are installed that react when these limits are exceeded. Just like a car’s tachometer needle goes into the red when the driver revs the engine too high. Such “operating windows” have long since been standard when dealing with safety concerns. “Now we’ve extended this approach to include reliability aspects,” states Hedler. His team calculates the ranges of the individual “right conditions” in complex models and simulates standard operating conditions, along with further scenarios such as a system’s startup and shut-down. The overall objectives are clear: to increase the operating time of the system’s components and prevent system downtime due to damage.

Designed from the start for reliability and a long service life: the new TDI plant in Dormagen.
The new TDI plant in Dormagen

Naturally, a plant’s operation is never completely without some turnarounds. For example, there are mandatory inspections by authorities, which take place at set intervals, depending on the particular country. Advising and supporting the clients so as to ensure such downtimes are conducted as flawlessly and efficiently as possible also falls within the ALCM’s area of responsibility. This, again, is something the experts keep in mind when planning a new facility. In the case of the Dormagen TDI plant, for example, the team took into consideration from the beginning places where the thickness of a wall would have to be measured later on or the tightness of a seal tested. “Now we construct such spots to be easily accessible right from the start and, for example, insert a window in the insulating material for just that purpose,” Hedler explains. In short, forward thinking that was previously not necessarily the case.

Another element has also become standard in the meantime. Whereas until now the wall thickness at critical points in a system would only have been measured during an inspection, these days ALCM conducts such a measurement program prior to the initial system start-up – a “baseline measurement” so to speak. Having these reference points proves to be a great advantage – at the latest by the time of the first inspection. “We then not only see if all the numbers are still OK, but also immediately see the changes over time,” says Hedler. Just as a car driver only knows when he is losing oil if he has already checked it once beforehand, plant operators can learn much from a baseline; for example, where the thickness of a material has shrunk faster than elsewhere. 

The inspection program itself has also changed. Hedler’s team now practices risk-based inspections (RBI), a procedure that is comparatively new within the chemical industry (see technology solutions 2011, p. 20). Instead of across-the-board set intervals for inspection, the probability that something can occur is determined for each individual component and what the consequences would be.

This results in a kind of risk matrix and the intervals for inspection are set accordingly. “For some inspections, once every ten years is enough,” says Hedler, “while more critical spots will conceivably be examined in shorter cycles.” The expert compares it to a company’s fleet of vehicles, “Instead of checking the vehicles every two years, for example, it make more sense to inspect those used the most every year, while inspecting those less used every four or five years.” In the final analysis, the effort and expense is perhaps even less than a biennial inspection of all the vehicles. And even availability could profit in the long run, since the vehicles used the most would be checked more often and thus be less prone to break down. 

The experience made with RBI has been good. For example, the head of production at Bayer MaterialScience’s aniline plant in Antwerp, Erwin Dieterich, was extremely pleased following the latest inspection: “We had 60 percent less costs and also reduced our production losses due to downtime.” The water pipes in the new TDI plant in Dormagen will also need to be inspected less often in the future thanks to the choice of stainless steel, since the risk of corrosion is lower than with normal steel. 

When Carlos Hedler talks about his work, he likes to refer to other industries. The engineers in the aviation industry, for example, naturally aim to minimize the time their fleets spend on the ground. When it comes to Lufthansa Technik, Hedler virtually goes into raptures, exclaiming, “They have systematic online data collection and analysis and know exactly when each part has to be replaced to keep their planes in the air.” 

Data and its uses – now that is a subject with a lot of potential still. The systematic analysis of data collected worldwide is also set to aid Bayer in gaining valuable insights into asset management. According to Hedler, modern database models, data mining concepts, and self-adaptive systems will make integrated asset monitoring possible in the future. Results from individual plants that perhaps have not revealed much until now are more than capable, with a global perspective, of providing significant information. “For example,” declares Hedler, “when we suddenly realize that a certain pump always breaks down prematurely under certain operating conditions.” If he has his way, intelligent computer programs will soon be helping to derive such information from the volume of data accumulated worldwide. 

Hedler has also found the automotive industry to be a source of inspiration for his work. At first glance, an automobile assembly line has conceivably little to do with the designing of a chemical plant. Nonetheless, there are many comparisons, as Hedler points out: “They also reflect on ways to prevent downtime on their production line. They use an extensive database of past events to calculate failure probabilities. They then estimate the effects of such failures and search for prevention strategies. So there are many things in their fundamental procedure that are exactly like our own.” 

And, in the final analysis, it is also not that much different at home with the Hedlers. The kitchen mixer, at any rate, has been operationally available 24/7 since its purchase – thanks to life-cycle based investment planning.

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