Engineering Concepts Modular vs Megaplant Modular vs. Megaplant: The Fight for the Future of Engineering

Author / Editor: Dominik Stephan* / Dominik Stephan

Whether major project or container factory: What is decisive is the networking — What does chemical production of tomorrow look like? While the mega plants score with their scaling effects in giant proportions, the modular plant scores in flexibility thanks to the construction kit principle. Container modules against projects worth billions — an unequal battle. But perhaps on closer look David and Goliath are not really so different?

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Clear the ring, secunds out! The fight for the future of plant engineering is on - but who will take the price in the David vs Goliath battle? The modular plant from the construction kit or the mega project in overseas?
Clear the ring, secunds out! The fight for the future of plant engineering is on - but who will take the price in the David vs Goliath battle? The modular plant from the construction kit or the mega project in overseas?
(© Artsem Martysiuk - Fotolia)

Diggers, dredgers and excavating machines are toiling in the blazing heat of Arabia or at the US Gulf Coast, from Indian Gujarat to the West Coast of Australia. Mega plants are springing up out of the soil in desert sand and marshy land like mushrooms.

Faster, higher, further: Cheap oil, shell gas or alternative raw materials fuel the fantasy of managers and chemical engineers to plan bigger and bigger projects. According to a recent report by Dechema (German Society for Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology), the capacity of chemical plants increased by a factor of two to six in the last decade alone. Any yet, although individual projects are getting bigger and bigger, the order inflows for engineering companies and plant constructors are stagnating or even decreasing.

Engineering Projects Around the World (Image Gallery)
Gallery with 16 images

Blessed are the firms that are able to attract such billion packages — like Jacobs Engineering, which is responsible for an EPC package in super-size format at the Saudi petrochemical mega project Sadara or KBR, who are building Chevrons Gas’ 2.6 billion dollar gas refinery at Gorgon, Western Australia together with partners.

Hardly any company is operating alone here: Project scope and order volumes are so enormous, only international consortia can handle them. For lone fighters, even pre-financing itself can frequently turn out to be an insurmountable hurdle. Go big or go home seems to be the new motto in plant engineering.

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Rise of the Goliath-Projects

How the times are changing: The oil-rich Gulf countries in the Arab peninsula began a strategy shift in the 2000s from pure raw materials producer to a downstream-integration along the entire value-creation chain. The mega plants came up within a short duration from the desert sand — a name became the fairy from 1001 Nights for the plant manufacturer: Sadara.

The joint venture of the US chemicals giant Dow and the Saudi Arabian Aramco will construct the biggest chemicals location in Al Jubail in one step by 2017. The two heavy weights will spend 20 billion dollar on the project. The first plant to be commissioned in 2015 was the ethylene and polyethylene production plant.

A Construction Kit System?

You must be joking — the production plant of the future should be smaller, more flexible and more cost-effective. Combined like a construction kit from semi-fabricated modules, it will be used flexibly and in a decentralized environment even down to a complete chemicals factory in a single standard container. Thanks to the small production scale, it is worthwhile to go in for small batches, as they are typical for high-value products.

The signs remain favourable, as Europe’s chemical companies have withdrawn almost fully from the bulk business in commodities. Cheap production in foreign countries can only be countered with high-value specialities.

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