Improving asset performance is a universal goal for today's process industries, where the performance of systems in all industrial sectors is increasingly coming under critical inspection. This is particularly so within oil and gas, and petrochemical production, where global energy demand is continually increasing, amidst the pressure to operate these facilities more cost-efficiently.
Central to these process assets is mission-critical rotating equipment, and specifically centrifugal pumps, which represent a significant proportion of the equipment found in oil and gas production facilities, and most industrial processing operations. Keeping these systems up and running is vital to maintaining process flow. The failure of a mission-critical or supporting pump, necessary to offshore or onshore extraction, or midstream and downstream distribution, refining or storage, can interrupt production resulting in costly loses in product-stream revenue, as well as potential emission violations that jeopardize plant operating licenses.
Large industrial processing facilities, such as for oil and gas, or petrochemical production, may have thousands of pumps and other rotating equipment in place, many of which are original equipment installed when the plant was opened, possibly 40 to 50 years earlier. Consequently, maintaining robust and effective maintenance and upgrade of these pumps, and securing their reliability, is increasingly crucial as the rotary equipment continues to age.
Skills gap affecting process industries
Despite the necessity for increased maintenance and upgrade of centrifugal pumps and critical rotary equipment in oil and gas, and other industrial facilities, the process industries are facing a severe shortage of talented and trained workers, putting continued production performance and the maintenance of equipment reliability at risk.
According to the report, Science & Engineering Indicators 2018, prepared by the National Science Foundation, “The demographic composition of the S&E (science and engineering) workforce in the United States is changing. The baby boom portion of the S&E workforce continues to age into retirement. Mirroring U.S. population trends, the S&E labor force (worldwide) is aging.”
Retiring engineers take with them decades of experience, expertise and knowledge of process operations. But the pool of open engineering jobs in process industries is growing, as employers are finding their positions more difficult to fill with younger qualified candidates.
This is supported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which states, “Within engineering, process and manufacturing industries, there are serious concerns that the incoming talent pipeline is not large enough to fill the number of jobs that will become available. The need to train and mentor millennials to fill the knowledge gap is vital.”
This skills gap in the engineering workforce constitutes the difference between what employers need their employees to be able to do, and what those employees can actually do on their first day of work.
As the World Economic Forum explains, “There is a gap between higher education and real-world engineering experience. This has created a gap between the skills that industry needs to develop the technologies, products and services that make companies profitable and competitive, and the skills that entry-level mechanical engineers bring to the table.”
For these reasons, process companies are implementing new ways to recruit and train young engineers in the skills needed to bridge the gap. John Crane, for example, has implemented a program, engineeringU, which is a 12-month accelerated development program that offers select applicants the opportunity to learn and work alongside John Crane engineers, while gaining hands-on experience and post-program career placement in critical roles across John Crane. Rather than an entry-level position, this program provides new engineers with a wide range of knowledge and skills to impact global business.
“By developing the engineeringU program we are able to identify certain engineers from targeted universities, bring them in and get them up to speed within that first year,” said Adrian Conrad, engineeringU director, at John Crane. “We then have them hit the ground running across the business and making an immediate impact right after that first year.”
But also, increasingly, process companies are using outsourced managed reliability programs to maintain, upgrade and extend longevity of their key process assets – rotating equipment, and specifically centrifugal pumps. These programs accumulate a broad base of recorded engineering and maintenance knowledge on their systems and processes. This acquisition of knowledge has the tangible effect of reducing these companies’ reliance on the transfer of knowledge from an experienced to a novice workforce – in essence, helping to compensate for, and minimize, the workforce skills gap.
Performance Plus Reliability program
One such program, Performance Plus Reliability, offered by John Crane – a global leader in rotating equipment solutions, supplying engineered technologies and services to process industries – has gained wide acceptance in oil and gas, petrochemical and other process industries.
The Performance Plus program, with its central focus on mechanical seals in rotating equipment, provides the high-level reliability support services that are needed to improve plant performance and reduce inventory and operating costs. Results-driven and individually tailored, each program defines measurable performance targets, assesses equipment reliability, analyzes root cause failures and recommends strategies for improvement.
One of the vital components of a centrifugal pump is the mechanical seal around the rotating shaft, which passes through a stationary pressure casing or housing. The mechanical seal contains the liquid or gas from escaping to the environment. Sealing systems are vital in maintaining pump efficiency and reliability.
A mechanical seal is comprised of a stationary primary element, which is fixed within the pump housing, and a rotating mating element fixed to the shaft. Precisely machined, these two components are pressed together by a flexible load element, meeting at a wear face, while the extreme tolerance precisions between the two elements minimize fluid and gas leakage. The wear faces are supported on an extremely thin lubricating film, typically 0.25 microns (9.8 microinches) in thickness.
“The mechanical seal is a key indicator of the health and performance, not only of the centrifugal pump, but also the process associated with the pump,” said Matias Conde, global director of John Crane’s Strategic Alliances.
“In most cases, when a seal fails, it is a result of off-spec mechanical running and process operation, or other influences external to the seal itself,” added Conde. “The mechanical seal will usually be the first component of a pump to exhibit malfunction as a result of external influence. But the seal malfunctioning is a symptom of a more fundamental problem affecting the pump or process. It will open the door to discovering what that external problem is and addressing and resolving the root cause of the malfunction.”
In this way, the performance of the mechanical seal becomes a direct conduit for root cause failure analysis of both the afflicted rotary equipment and the associated process. This often reveals a variety of contributing factors that ultimately result in critical seal failures. By identifying these causes, seal lifetime, and equipment and process plant reliability can be improved.
Program development for reliability support begins with a comprehensive feasibility study to establish the full scope of the facility’s needs.
“We measure equipment performance, calculate total cost of ownership and identify opportunities for improvement and cost savings,” explained Conde. “Once the data is collected, we use our Interface reliability management software to benchmark asset performance against industry averages and perform a cost/benefit analysis. Interface currently holds more than 75,000 recorded assets specifically related to Performance Plus programs.”
The results of the study help to design the proposed program, allowing reliability to be measured against long-term targets, outage reduction or total cost of ownership. MTBR (meantime between repairs), a key driver for the industry, is significantly increased.
The Performance Plus Program supports in-house maintenance teams to focus on planned maintenance without unplanned distractions or conflicting priorities. The program provides on-site reliability engineers to focus on troubleshooting, root cause analysis and defect elimination, while also delivering vital training to the plant’s workforce to reduce the risk of unplanned downtime and recurring issues in the future.
Reducing the engineering skills gap
Industries engaged in oil and gas, and petrochemical production are losing knowhow and experience through the loss of seasoned engineering personnel, while poor systems asset data and performance records results in no captured knowledge and learning.
The Performance Plus Program methodology provides today’s response for improvement. The data aspect of the program is the platform for a sustainable resolution to the skills gap.