ExxonMobil continues to make it happen

June 21, 2017
Process change and equipment reduction takes work to implement successfully

For the past few years, ExxonMobil’s “It Just Happens” initiative has challenged traditional approaches to processes and eliminated equipment that wasn’t required. Although the multinational oil & gas giant’s intent was to simplify and let prosperity fall into place, the reality involved a lot of work, said Sandy Vasser, ExxonMobil’s retired IC&E manager, who spoke at Honeywell Users Group 2017 in San Antonio, Texas.

Using field-configurable I/O and standard cabinets allows solutions to be ordered by part numbers with no detail specifications required. “We eliminated 66% of cabinets and termination switches,” said Vasser.

No hardware factory acceptance test (FAT) was required for standard equipment. “We reduced automation hardware costs by 30-40%,” he explained. “We reduced the footprint of rooms by about 40%.”

Large copper cables were replaced with fiberoptic cables, and module weight was reduced. “We simplified designs and reduced customizations,” said Vasser.

Additional activity improvements included:

  • eliminating design churn and recycle
  • fewer errors in construction enabling less inspection time
  • less vendor data to be reviewed and approved
  • more than 30% reduction in engineering, construction and commissioning
  • automation schedules compressed by 25%
  • reduced number of drawings.

“All of this didn’t just happen,” explained Vasser. “It required a lot of hard work. And Honeywell developed a lot of enabling technologies to help us to do this.”

Challenge accepted

To chart the automation dependency of traditional project approaches, the ExxonMobil team identified the challenges it faced and resulting impacts.

Historical challenges included discipline dependencies that forced sequential execution, design input that occurred unchecked throughout the project cycle, limited use of standard solutions and the use of highly engineered, frequently changing customized designs.

Larger projects had unique challenges. For example, larger projects were more complex. They included multiple EPCs, with fabrication yards and equipment sourced from around the globe. Activities ran in parallel to satisfy project schedules. Mega-projects also typically had higher costs and lower returns.

All of these challenges resulted in recycling of designs through startup, extensive hardware changes throughout execution, excessive high-cost field changes, automation on the critical path, execution uncertainty, longer schedules and higher costs.

“We decided we had to adopt a different approach because this just wasn’t working,” explained Vasser.

The early focus was on identifying industry best practices, incorporating lessons learned into adopted practices, developing detailed procedures that were rigorously and consistently followed, auditing for compliance and striving for perfection. But automation remained on critical path, and that was just the beginning.

The level of rework and dependencies between disciplines remained high. Design “freezes” that weren’t freezes were commonplace, and activities were still performed out of sequence. “We were fabricating equipment before the design was complete,” explained Vasser. Even though schedules and costs were being managed, they continued to grow.

Commonly held beliefs from management blamed suppliers and EPCs for poor performance, owners for making changes and engineers for “going rogue and gold-plating” designs. “Management believed the problems were caused because we had engineers on the projects,” said Vasser. “The reality is that, if we had the best participants and fewer changes and nonstandard features, a project would still experience those historical problems. The core sources of the problems were the processes that we’d been using for decades. These processes were developed decades ago when projects were smaller, less complicated, not schedule-constrained, more local and included fewer participants.”

Customization infrastructure

Another difficulty relates to procurement. “Although nonstandard physical changes increase costs, the real cause of increased costs and delays are associated with the customization infrastructure,” said Vasser.

This customization infrastructure included:

  • creation and approval of project specifications on every project
  • preparation and approval of detailed and expansive inquiry packages
  • review and understanding of the inquiry packages by suppliers
  • preparation of proposals by suppliers that include nonstandard features and specification deviations
  • review and selection of proposals by owners/EPCs
  • development of new designs by the suppliers to comply with nonstandard requirements, requiring new drawings
  • supplier modification of manufacturing processes
  • fabrication holds for inspections by owners/EPCs to verify customization
  • complete pre-FATs by suppliers before owners/EPCs witnessed FATs.

Customization was at the root of the procurement woes, so a new approach to projects was developed. “Wherever we could, we eliminated customization,” explained Vasser.

In addition to reduced customization, complexity was reduced by simplifying designs. The component count and number of divergent systems were also reduced, as were the number of interfaces. Processes were automated, simplified or eliminated, and the effects of dependencies were mitigated. Automatically generated documentation also was reduced.

These changes did not come without hurdles. An unwillingness to accept risk proved challenging, but resistance to change was as cumbersome as ever. There was extensive training, experience and comfort with established technologies and processes, and most of the focus was on perfecting and improving those existing practices.

“Management said the problem was that the engineers were technocrats,” explained Vasser. “But the issue was that the engineers had been trained to do the same process or procedure for decades. And we perfected those procedures, rather than eliminating them. If you’re looking to make significant change, it takes a combination of your experienced folks and young people who haven’t already developed their own biases.”

Relationships with suppliers changed, too. In the past, suppliers developed new technologies independently and promoted them to clients, or often the clients directed suppliers to develop customized client-specific solutions. That changed by creating partnerships between clients and suppliers to solve industry problems, which is how universal I/O and universal cabinets were developed.