Plant Turnarounds Monte Carlo for Engineers: How to Control the Risk in Plant Turnarounds

Author / Editor: Dominik Stephan* / Dominik Stephan

It is essential to know the risks in order to be able to handle them  — and projects involving tens of thousands of components, hundreds of workers and budgets running into millions present more than enough pitfalls. Nevertheless, a plant shutdown need not turn into a lottery: the 11th annual TAR conference in Potsdam demonstrated some risk management methods and explained what engineers can learn in Monte Carlo and from pilots …

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The bets are set, the game is on… The kind of rush a hardened gambler might feel is definitely out of place in turnaround management. Especially, as the stakes are so much higher: When large plants are up for inspection, the entire production line stops. Hundreds of workers, special machines and logistical challenges will quickly gobble up millions. Even minor faults and delays can lead to several days of additional production downtime.

There is most definitely no place in for gambler types in turnaround and plant downtimes — something that was made painfully clear at the 11th annual turnaround conference in Potsdam. The event run by management consultants from T.A. Cook had enticed some 250 experts from all fields of plant overhaul to the former Prussian capital. There were operators from refineries and the petrochemicals sector as well as engineering specialists and equipment manufacturers passing on their experiences and insight into best practices and trends in shutdown management.

It was hardly surprising, that in view of ever more complex shutdowns the subject of planning was right at the top of the agenda. Reinhard Kroll, managing director of Total Mitteldeutschland, advocated the need to budget for risks of the kind posed by worn parts, for example, and to keep spare capacity in reserve for short-term measures, even in the case of a refinery shutdown involving over 30,000 items — after all, whatever the crew members say, "we are not optimizing the production process, we are optimizing the turnaround!"

The Turnaround Dilemma

This point was also emphasised by T.A. Cook consultant Gert Müller: The expert in plant shutdowns essentially explained that turnaround planners are caught between two stools. On the one side, the inspection is to proceed as quickly as possible because every day of lost output means immense costs through lost margin.

If the schedule is too tight, however, planners can be faced with considerable additional costs or incalculable production losses. If customers have recourse against the operator or start looking around at the competition, then trust that has been built up over years is at stake. So is it best to play safe?

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Little Decisions, Big Impact

That idea was dismissed by Müller, who claimed that anyone who wants to rule out every risk cannot line up an ambitious schedule. “Even little things like poor material management can have a big impact — simply because shutdowns are on a large scale and the number of people involved is often very big!” The task remains that of weighing up certainty against ambition and bringing about an exact balance in the relationship between scope, timetable and resources where profit is maximized and risk is minimized.