1660238359003 Johnrezabek

To-do list for essential business in lean times

April 10, 2020
With major projects on hold, use this time to clear the back-burner of oft-neglected tasks

“FedEx is an essential business” reads the subject of a recent email, amidst references to self-quarantine and many “non-essential” personnel working from home. Once emergency measures are no longer warranted, we'll all be asking just how many tasks and duties are indeed essential to be executed on site, under the supervision of a superior.

If you’re among those deemed essential now, some would say you can count yourself fortunate. Our work life, though fraught with its own anxieties and stress, can be a welcome respite from the ennui of streaming services or the never-ending drone of redundant press conferences and analyses. But we—the fortunate—are here in our facilities, where investment and cash flow have likely been curtailed in the face of great market uncertainty. Who knows when the economy will emerge from the current crisis? With tight budgets and limited capital, can we use this time for some worthwhile tasks that tend to occupy the back burner?

Perhaps this is a chance to tidy up a number of the oft-neglected aspects of our discipline.

Let’s begin with safety. As ambitious professionals, we might be drawn more to reliability and throughput (making money), but safety is an over-arching priority. Are there testing regimens whose procedures can be better tuned to modern capabilities? If you find you’re taking credit for added measurement (instrument) diagnostic coverage to claim an adequate risk-reduction factor (PFD avg), are procedures documented and personnel trained to monitor these diagnostics, so that one that might detect a dangerous failure?

After decades of operation, I still get questions about shutdown system behavior, for example, what measurements participate in an interlock, setpoints, etc. Comments (text in the configuration that aims to illuminate what the engineer was aiming to achieve with the logic) can be sparse, out of date or non-existent. Are there opportunities to validate interlocks that have been in play and “tweaked” over the past few decades? Can the old timers provide comments in the configuration for complex shutdown schemes, or clarify nuances whose purpose isn’t obvious? Adding notes to the P&IDs, and even adding or enhancing graphics to better represent the interlocks, can be beneficial and appreciated by novices as well as old hands.

If you employ a PLC or DCS for regulatory controls or sequential logic, their configurations can also benefit from descriptions and commentary. When someone had a question about adding a variable to the historian (so it could be trended) or adjusting a sequence to avoid disruption to stable reactor operations, it took an afternoon of “staring at it” before understanding why it was configured as it was.

These are ideal times to seek out customizations and “one of a kind” control strategies, study them, and explain each in context for the benefit of ourselves and especially our successors. We all know that in the course of troubleshooting, testing and ongoing operations, adjustments and additions are made to avoid undesirable behavior—but thorough documentation is often forgotten.

“Physical layer” inspections also have great potential for improving control and measurement reliability. If you’re in a cold climate, track down all the instrument enclosures and any associated impulse lines or tubing whose heat tracing proved to be inadequate for the extremes of winter. Many enclosures are warped or deformed by steam hoses with tarps employed to reheat a frozen transmitter, and these most likely will fail to hold heat next January.

If your site employs rigid steel or aluminum conduit, conduit covers for the ubiquitous “LB” fitting and its kin have an uncanny way of disappearing. I’ve been impressed by the variety of instruments that continue to function with a case full of water, but they tend to fail quickly. Spend a few days scouring each unit; maybe carry a can of fluorescent magenta spray paint and tag all the conduit fittings and instrument enclosures you find with open covers, missing seals, plugs or gaskets. Now that precipitation is in liquid form (in northern climes) this effort can pay real dividends.

Lean times don’t need to be troubled because of scarce resources. Next month—more thoughts on how to polish up the assets in our purview.

About the author: John Rezabek
About the Author

John Rezabek | Contributing Editor

John Rezabek is a contributing editor to Control

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