*As seen in Inspectioneering Journal’s July/August 2020 issue.

In May, Inspectioneering and Pinnacle once again hosted our bi-annual “Meeting of the Minds” (MOTM) roundtable discussion with a select group of mechanical integrity (MI) experts from across industry. This was our 6th MOTM, and much like many of you, we were forced to adapt to the current Covid-19 environment and conduct our meeting virtually. Nonetheless, our panel of SMEs were able to carve out time to sit down and discuss numerous issues currently affecting the industry. As with previous meetings, participants come from various sectors of the industry, including refining/petrochemicals, offshore production, and chemical processing.

Previous MOTM Recaps have provided a brief summary of some of the key takeaways from our discussions over topics like corrosion under insulation (CUI) programs, integrity operating windows (IOWs), corrosion control documents (CCDs), internal site assessments, risk-based inspection (RBI), addressing the “Great Crew Change,” and most recently, emerging technologies and their impact on mechanical integrity. This meeting was focused on how the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and dramatic slide in oil prices have affected mechanical integrity programs. Below is a quick recap of the discussion.

Workforce Reductions and their Effects on MI Programs

The Spring 2020 discussion kicked off with the recognition that every participant had seen staff reductions due to Covid social distancing restrictions. As a result, many of their facilities have been forced to postpone or cancel proactive, continuous improvement programs and shift focus to more essential maintenance activities. The manner and degree to which they had done this varied.

One participant said that he “wound up going to a very minimal approach and stopped almost all of the advanced MI activities,” primarily due to the majority of their contracted workforce being excused from the refinery. He added that they were looking at as much as a ten to twelve-week setback due to not having enough people on site. None of his continuous improvement programs were being advanced and they were discussing the various waivers and deviations that they’re going to have to put into place in order to get things moving forward again. Fortunately, because his facility is running at a reduced capacity and they were not overstressing or running the equipment very hard, they had virtually no incidents.

Another participant stated that 80% of his budget had been slashed. The participant’s organization has considered what they have to do to stay compliant with applicable codes and standards and what will keep them running safely (e.g., API 510, 570, 653 inspections). Beyond that, they’ve been “forced to evaluate whether we can delay it and if so, how long? In some cases, that’s two to three years down the road.”

Another participant said it was a mixed bag for his organization. Some of their refineries are still working full crews, some are running with ½ staff and rotations, and other refineries have no non-essential personnel on site. Regardless, “the integrity needs at all sites still have to be addressed. There is no compromise on reliability, so all high-risk items still need to be addressed.” The big impact loss for them has been turnarounds. It’s not just that they’ve had to cancel turnarounds scheduled for the next few months, but that looking ahead, they’re not quite sure when they’re going to have the necessary staff and resources to support future turnarounds.

Another participant revealed that for each of his sites, they looked at the jurisdictionally driven compliance requirements and self-imposed schedules and triaged them, so to speak. If they determined that they could safely defer then they would do so, especially with mandates to reduce staff onsite. Some of his facilities implemented personnel rotations where 25% of inspectors were on site one week and a different 25% the next. Every inspection, whether it was for end-of-life or fitness-for-service-related, was carried out. Nothing related to compliance had really fallen off and some pretty major continuous improvement programs had surprisingly not been cut. He did state that they’ve probably been hit the hardest in two main areas:

  1. Scheduled turnarounds – those all had to be shifted to later dates because the resources weren’t available, and logistics simply weren’t going to work out.
  2. Shift in operations – the demand for gasoline plummeted so they really had nowhere to put gasoline. Some sites started processing more distillates and other products. They had done this in the past for short periods (one to two weeks) without invoking the management of change (MOC) process and never had an issue, but never for a prolonged period (6+ weeks). The problem is changes to operations, even small ones, can have significant MI ramifications. Temperature shifts and running different products can change the corrosion profile and if you’re not aware of the potential consequences of the changes you’re making, you could be in for a nasty surprise. Luckily, they caught certain issues before they led to incidents; these near misses were real “lesson learned” opportunities for his entire team.

A participant from the chemical sector stated that they had not cut budgets for any of their programs, but the multi-week labor reductions and other inefficiencies brought on by Covid forced them to temporarily slow progress on some of their MI programs, which will make it difficult to accomplish what they had planned in the shorter window. He went on to echo what some of the other attendees had said, stating that “the biggest impact is probably that we’re reevaluating our turnaround slates, which will sort of indirectly affect our MI programs.”

Offering a slightly different spin from the offshore side, one attendee said they have managed to keep at least one API inspector on each one of their platforms throughout the current environment. This is comparable to a unit inspector in a refinery, but it’s fairly uncommon in the upstream sector. By doing this, they’ve managed to gain a lot of ground on routine inspections. He admitted they’ve had to defer some of the planned projects, but not because they were squeezed out by the MI budget; they simply won’t have time for them due to other pressing priorities like fabric maintenance and insulation repairs. And for fabric maintenance, one of their biggest pain points, personnel shortages have forced them to fall behind schedule. But they do have full support for baseline compliance activities. Unfortunately, some things outside of MI that may have a direct or indirect impact on MI, like equipment replacement and other capital projects, had to be deferred.

Turned Down Operations and their Effects on MI Programs

Everyone in the group stated that they have turned down operations to some degree at their facilities due to the current market conditions. History has shown that turndowns can cause a variety of MI-related issues in process plants due to significant changes in operations where dew points shift, salt points shift, etc. So what kinds of things are being done to ensure these issues don’t pop up in units operating at lower rates?

One participant stated that they gathered all of their corrosion and materials engineers and SMEs together to collaborate and develop a fairly exhaustive list of things that they should be watching out for in a unit under a slowdown or low/no flow conditions. He said that this approach was well-received, and the site chief inspectors were very grateful to get that list.

Another participant admitted they had reduced utilization at most of their plants and pushed back planned turnarounds two to three years depending on the facility. They’re using risk models and their knowledge of each facility to see how they can move things out as far as possible. “As for Inspection, if it’s CODE it’s CODE, and we’ve got to get it done. If it’s high risk, we’ve got to get it done. We’re still running fitness-for-service analysis when they run into issues.” He added that it’s kind of weird looking at all this and trying to balance budgets out two to three years, but at the same time “it’s actually making us take a real hard look at what we can really do to make things more efficient and effective on a day-to-day basis.” This was a sentiment echoed by the rest of the group.

He went on to say that they had spent a lot of time over the last few years setting up IOWs and CCDs, and even though they’ve had to make some adjustments, they’re using them to make sure the right locations are being monitored. Moreover, RBI has helped prioritize their efforts by identifying the higher risk items. “If you don’t have these programs in place, it’s going to be a challenge managing reliability while deferring inspections and idling operations,” he added. Fortunately, they were well-prepared because of the way they’ve integrated corrosion and materials and fixed equipment reliability engineers into their programs.

Biggest Opportunities for Improvement Amid Current Challenges

One participant was adamant that, now more than ever, it’s all about efficiency. “We have reviewed all of our workflows, all of our practices, and all of our fixed equipment business to see where we can use technology to increase efficiency. For example, we’ve found a number of technologies out there to assist with the collection, management and transfer of data, and we feel like implementing them now can really optimize our business.”

Another participant agreed, saying that “digital initiatives have been accelerated and pushed forward! We’re really taking this time to look at how we can change the way we’ve traditionally done inspections.”

Another participant said they’ve had a digital transformation program in the works now for a couple of years. For example, they’ve gone all digital with our inspections and everything is done on iPads and iPhones now. “There was some resistance at first, but once we started using it it was a game changer. No more handing off thumb drives and photos, no more Xeroxing, no more work packs for the field; we assign something digitally and everything goes right out to the inspector’s devices. They now have everything sitting at the tips of their fingertips when they’re executing that inspection.” It has completely changed their whole work process.

He added that opportunities for improvement really depend on where the plant is in their MI excellence journey. “Some sites have a lot more opportunity to really optimize their programs (e.g., CML optimization) and it’s paying dividends. We had plants with CMLs everywhere, but when you really started to look at the damage mechanisms and susceptibilities, it’s like ‘What are we doing? We haven’t seen corrosion in this thing for three decades, but we still take readings at it just because there’s a bubble drawn on the ISO.’ Optimizing CMLs and getting our programs better fit to purpose has yielded almost an immediate payback. So right now we’re focusing on the bad actors and giving the good stuff time off for good behavior.”

One of our upstream participants stated that they were still in “program build mode” and have identified roughly a 40% gap across all asset types and platforms where they still need to add equipment to their MI program. For example, “when we looked at our historical CMLs, we found over 300,000. Since then we’ve gone through damage mechanism reviews (DMRs), corrosion modeling, etc. and tried to optimize, and now we’ve reduced it to somewhere around 30,000 CMLs. This doesn’t necessarily mean less time in the field, but we’re going to get more meaningful data. We expect this transformation to pay dividends as well.”

Impacts on Professional Development

School closings have created a new concern for parents that’s been termed the “Covid Slide” where kids’ development and progress has been stunted due to absence from school. The group was asked if they felt the social distancing measures enforced at their facilities have affected and will continue to affect their young inspectors and engineers.

Most of the group was in agreement that there is some concern with the lack of face-to-face interaction and collaboration with their young inspectioneers. They’re all using video conferencing technology to maintain communication, but there will inevitably be a drop off in their development. But as one participant put it, “it seems like there is a lot of opportunity now for individuals to invest time and resources into personal development and training.” For example, a lot of people are taking the time they would normally commit to commuting to and from the office/plant to reading, watching webinars, or online training.

One of the other participants revealed that one of the first things they cut was training, primarily because of the social distancing issue. He’s aware of virtual training options, but he and a couple other members of the discussion voiced concerns about its effectiveness. One of those concerns was that there is typically a lot of interaction and collaboration in the in-person training they’ve conducted in the past, and he is afraid that won’t be maintained in a virtual environment.

Clearly there are pros and cons to online learning. But nowadays, especially in the current environment, we have to adapt to continue to progress ourselves and our programs forward. The effectiveness of online learning really depends on how you tailor it to your audience. Another participant said they were in the process of “creating a lot of 5 – 10 minute ‘how to’ videos on things you should look for as an inspector or engineer walking into a plant.” Coupling these with software already out on the market can create a valuable learning experience for your younger personnel. He added that “one of the clear benefits to online training is the learner can take the course on their schedule and at their own pace. People no longer have to take a full week off of work to travel and sit through an in-person course.” It all depends on the subject, but this is something that just makes sense – now and beyond this Covid environment.

Closing

In closing, the current market conditions have clearly presented numerous challenges for operating facilities around the world. But they have also revealed tremendous opportunities for innovation, improvement and transformation. This industry is resilient, and I am confident that we will come out on the other side of this stronger and better connected than ever.

Inspectioneering and Pinnacle would like to thank all of the participants for joining in this discussion of these critical issues. We sincerely appreciate you dedicating your time to share your thoughts and experiences with our community.

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