They say the devil is in the details, and that is especially true in major capital building projects.

Poor upfront planning in the form of unanswered questions, a lack of detailed requirements and ambiguous support from management can lead to significant changes during a project’s execution and can easily result in the project going over budget and past schedule.

In fact, a 2012 PwC global survey of project management leaders identified that the top four factors that contribute to poor project performance are:

  1. Poor estimates/missed deadlines
  2. Lack of executive sponsorship
  3. Poorly defined goals/objectives
  4. Change(s) in scope mid-project

These factors reinforce why a front-end engineering and design approach (FEED) is so vital to preparing a capital building project for success. FEED is the basic engineering that follows a conceptual design or feasibility study and is used as the basis for the detailed engineering phase.

A properly executed FEED is essential for helping determine a project’s investment cost including the total cost of ownership. However, it is also crucial for detailing a project’s technical requirements – such as the control system architecture, equipment lists, process flow diagrams, and motor and electrical specifications. Chemical producers that want to avoid common mistakes and make the most of their FEED should keep these five tips for success in mind:

FEED is more than a cost estimate

Too often, FEED is conducted for one purpose: a cost estimate. However, a FEED analysis is about much more than that. Specifically, it provides the groundwork and technical detail from which a project is built. The basic engineering decisions made during the FEED have a significant impact on every project phase that follows.

Some organizations minimize their up-front engineering investments, either because they don’t see the value in FEED or because of time or cost restraints. Skipping or minimizing this step, though, can limit their ability to accurately define project scopes, result in decisions that are based on assumptions and lead to price estimates that are made in haste – all of which can actually increase costs in the long run. Then these organizations must also face having difficult conversations with senior leadership about why additional time and funding are needed to complete a project. In short, those involved in capital building projects should remember that FEED is project design that leads to a project cost – not the other way around.

Partner expertise is key

Chemical producers have long relied on engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firms to conduct FEEDs. Those EPCs – much like their end-user customers – are facing a skills gap as their engineers retire. At the same time, industrial automation is increasingly connected and complex. This is why chemical producers should choose FEED partners with relevant automation expertise.

A control system may represent a fraction of the total project cost, but it is integral to the overall operation and respective goals. For instance, a chemical site will not receive the right recoveries or achieve the payback expected on paper if the system is not controlling operations at an optimal rate.

Because of this, automation solution providers are playing a growing role in carrying out FEED studies in tandem with EPC firms. In addition, using a single solution provider instead of multiple vendors can be more cost effective and efficient while reducing risk and engineering costs.

Certainly the automation provider should have a successful track record of conducting and managing FEEDs and have a strong understanding of what constitutes a good one. The provider should also have the right industry experience and knowledge.

Some questions to ask when evaluating a vendor include:

  • Do they speak the language and technical jargon that workers speak?
  • Do they understand the applications and environments?
  • Are they familiar with the equipment, safety regulations and technology trends?

Considering if the automation partner can help a chemical producer understand the risks and rewards of implementing such a technology in its facility is important, especially as operations become more connected. Can it, for example, help address cybersecurity needs? Or ensure the right data is being collected and delivered to the right people, in a context that is relevant to their jobs?

Early stakeholder involvement is important

Good FEED requires support and involvement from a cross-functional team within an organization. This should include the engineering, finance, operations, regulatory and facility-management teams.

Early stakeholder buy-in, including securing stakeholders’ commitments to the process and confirming their requirements, aids in ensuring project agreement up front. This helps eliminate surprises down the line. Otherwise, project changes made after the FEED stage or discrepancies that were not addressed early on can significantly impact a project’s cost and schedule.

After a stakeholder team is established, a lead FEED contact should be designated to bring focus to the process. This person can help maintain stakeholders’ involved throughout, such as with collecting their input and ultimately confirming that the FEED plan meets their specific requirements. As changes are made during the FEED process, the lead contact can immediately relay changes to all stakeholders to help avoid confusion or surprises.

Deliverables will vary

While FEEDs are equally important for both greenfield (new build) and brownfield (rebuild, upgrade or extension) projects, the deliverables will differ slightly between them.

Greenfield projects essentially provide a blank canvas for the FEED. This means that most of the deliverables will be generated from scratch and that the FEED can directly lead into engineering the solution.

Brownfield projects, on the other hand, require more effort at the onset to document what is currently installed and to confirm the information that will be used as the basis from which the project can start. As a result, obsolescence, age of spare parts and probability of irreparable failure reports are needed, as are site surveys. Brownfield projects also require clear commissioning and qualification strategies for any new processes being introduced to the existing facility, particularly for highly regulated industries.

Looking ahead today can save costs tomorrow

A chemical producer may be tempted to implement the most cost-effective production system that solely satisfies its immediate needs. However, operations evolve. Chemical producers should consider the time and financial costs involved in reinvesting to replace their system in a few years.

The more practical approach is to invest the time and resources up front, during the basic-engineering phase, to examine how a system will need to evolve as a facility evolves. The FEED analysis can help identify a facility’s requirements today, but it also should include research into what will happen in the years ahead.

Building a good outcome

A chemical production site’s value is defined and built during the FEED stage, long before production begins. A good FEED can help determine a project’s usability; performance; cost effectiveness; and long-term operability, safety and environmental compatibilities. However, a good FEED plan can only happen with the right partners, the right approach, and full buy-in and support from a diverse group of stakeholders.

Royal Mint Case Study

The Royal Mint in the U.K. developed a new chemical plating process for adding anti-counterfeiting technology to monetary and commemorative coins, most notably the newly proposed UK £1 coin. The process allows the Royal Mint to offer a new generation of coins with three levels of banknote-strength security — overt, covert and forensic — built in. This product makes the Royal Mint the leader in anti-counterfeiting technology in the global marketplace. The Mint also proposed to franchise/license the technology to other mints globally, adding further revenue sources.

The Royal Mint contracted Rockwell Automation to improve its lab-scale technology and integrate the design into its existing production lines in Wales. The first step was completing a FEED analysis and plan which consisted of process, mechanical, electrical, control and instrumentation (EC&I), and automation engineer scopes of work. Rockwell Automation worked with specialist equipment vendors and design consultants to introduce new technologies to make the up-scale feasible from both technical and commercial perspectives. These technologies were tested in conjunction with the vendors prior to integration into the new design.

Some of the challenges during the FEED process included evaluating risks associated with the new process (for example, equipment and chemical properties) and mechanically retrofitting existing equipment and designing with space constraints in the existing production system layout. After completing the FEED study in less than two months, the automation provider executed and managed the detailed design and the installation of the new system. The installation included the management and coordination of mechanical and electrical retrofitting and the commissioning of the main process systems and ancillary systems.

In the new, retrofitted production system, eight plating tanks contained a unique plating solution with a specialist additive. Baskets of coin blanks are dipped into the tanks to add the counterfeiting prevention technology by layers. The system uses a number of processes to manage the additive within the plating solution to ensure that the plating process is robust, repeatable and cost-effective for the client. The system manages the agitation, conditioning and concentration of the additive in the plating solution and allows for the additive removal and re-charging, enabling the line to operate in its pre-retrofit or new plating modes. Programmable automation controllers connect with more than 500 input/output points to tightly manage the process.

Less than two years after initiating the FEED study, the anti-counterfeiting plating process was installed and commissioned. Collaborating with an automation solution provider on the upfront design and analysis of the existing facility equipment helped the Royal Mint in the following ways:

  • Reduced the risk of installing a new process to an existing system
  • Streamlined the retrofit process by identifying constraints early
  • Ensured operator safety within the hazardous environment

Kevin McCarthy is Global Process Technologies business manager for Rockwell Automation. Graham Stead is the EMEA business manager for the Mineral, Mining and Cement division of Rockwell Automation.

Rockwell Automation

www.rockwellautomation.com