Plant turnaround – or plant shutdown – is both an inescapable reality and a common occurrence in many asset-heavy industries. Assets age, processes fail, and you need to periodically shut down, upgrade and repair.
This process can be one of the biggest challenges that asset owners face. It is generally costly, complicated and slow, which can lead to big-picture inefficiencies, interruptions in production and a severe impact to your bottom line.
In this blog, we will outline the five phases of a turnaround process and the challenges associated with each phase. The more you understand about the road and challenges ahead, the more equipped you will be to avoid the pitfalls and see turnaround success.
The Problem with Plant Turnaround Processes Today
A plant turnaround is a scheduled stoppage of part or all of a plant's operations. Usually, operations need to stop for maintenance, to replace equipment, to upgrade energy resources or to maintain regulatory compliance.
The overarching concern with this process is that it is costly, slow and rife with unforeseen issues. These cost-prohibitive inefficiencies can lead to severe problems within an organization. According to TA Cook and Solomon Associates (2019):
- More than half of all turnarounds experience significant delays. Those delays lead to significant revenue reduction as affected plants cannot get started quickly or efficiently.
- Almost 50% of work-related accidents in manufacturing plants occur during plant maintenance outages.
- 82% of all turnarounds do not satisfy performance requirements.
- 80% of all turnarounds are over budget by more than 10%.
If these statistics illustrate one thing, it is that there is a lot of dissatisfaction and room for improvement when it comes to the performance of turnaround projects. What would your organization look like if over 80% of your work orders did not satisfy requirements? It is unacceptable.
Fortunately, turnaround optimization is possible, and for companies that can streamline this process, many gains can be made: the top performers in this industry spend 30% less time on turnaround than the industry average, which leads to lower cost and more uptime.
Let us take a deeper look into specific turnaround phases and how they can be optimized.
The 5 Phases of a Turnaround Process and Their Associated Challenges
Before we dive into solutions, it is important to discuss the most prevalent issues that businesses come across during the turnaround process.
To simplify this discussion, we have defined five different phases of a turnaround process, discussing the particulars of each phase as well as typical challenges that tend to arise along the way.
The first phase is the scoping phase. This is when the initial planning is done and when you define things like time frame, budget, and the details about which assets will be impacted and which will be held out for another outage. Understanding and defining the scope of the turnaround is foundational to its success.
Here, it is important to keep in mind that many process-heavy facilities have defined turnaround intervals for each of their process units (e.g., unit 21 has a turnaround once every nine years, maximum). To some extent, then, scoping from a 30,000-foot level is non-negotiable, or, at the very least, very inflexible. This is not where you should be concerned.
Where things go wrong is when you step below this level and begin to pull individual processes or pieces of equipment into the scope to decide what must be done to those during the outage. This is where mistakes happen: assets are missed, machinery condition is misunderstood, or the work sequence is wrong and requires rework.
During your initial scoping, then, it is important to not only keep the 30,000-foot view, but also to make sure that your zoomed in view is clear and that you understand what needs to be done for each individual pipe, valve or machine.
That means completing your due diligence and developing a preparation plan that identifies cost estimates, schedules, work lists, constraints and resources needed to fully execute the turnaround.
Once you have all of this information delineated, it can be used for approval and distribution of the plan throughout the organization
The primary challenge? Scoping can generally happen based on experience or expectation. That said, a lot of the relevant data is often missing, meaning it cannot be leveraged to develop a plan.
For example, many facilities have zero equipment operating parameters showing employees how well or poorly key equipment is operating. Similarly, they may have very limited equipment condition information. They do not know what the equipment looks like or how it is performing.
This means that facilities are scoping based on hopes and assumptions rather than data and calculation – and this can be a dangerous starting point to work from.
Once the scope is defined, you will begin to prepare. This is the lengthiest phase of the turnaround, taking anywhere from 6-18 months. During this phase, you will use the information gathered during the scope phase to carry out detailed planning, including plan definition and coordination. This includes updating engineering data, creating work orders and hiring subcontractors.
In short, it is all the work that needs to be done to ensure an effective turnaround execution. The more time you spend preparing, the better off you will be when it comes times to execute.
The biggest challenge during this phase is that sometimes you will deal with a lot of outdated historical information, including outdated engineering data, poor communication and disjointed information.
Why? Most work orders, for example, need to be scheduled by various specialty crafts – welders, the electrical team, mechanics, pipefitters, etc. -- and engineering data may need to be updated by multiple contractors. The data ends up being disjointed and spread out between maintenance, engineering and contractors.
This makes it nearly impossible to build a cross-functional understanding of the work to be done and the proper sequence needed to ensure safety, eliminate rework and drive true critical paths through your project plans. Such concerns may cause minor or major delays to either the execution or the scope of the project.
This phase begins immediately once the plant is shut down, and it involves the execution of work orders, contractor mobilization and mobilization of workers in the field. Execution typically takes 1-14 days, but it can take a lot longer depending on the work and the type of project.
There is no guessing during execution: the preparation from phase two should eliminate surprises and unexpected downtime, ensuring that you know what needs to be done and do not become easily derailed.
After completing each task during the execution phase, that asset must be tested and validated for readiness to return to operation. The goal is that each asset must be as good, if not better, than when the turnaround started.
Unfortunately, execution is a very hectic part of the turnaround process. Challenges during execution usually involve lack of experience, poor coordination and ad-hoc decision making. Think about it: the equipment that is being replaced or re-used is very dependent on the people that work there. If those people do not have experience with the asset or the site – say they are extra contractors or hired outside resources – they may not have the information needed for effective turnaround execution.
Additionally, there can be coordination concerns in the field, including high waiting times. If, for example, work orders are scheduled in the same place where a lock-out is taking place, then those work orders have to be re-assigned. This can cause a lot of ad-hoc decision-making and put the execution at risk, leading to things like overtime, expansion of the execution phase and extra costs to the organization.
This is when you execute the start-up plan to get back up and running, and this phase typically takes less than a day. Before start-up, a final inspection will occur during which operations personnel, maintenance and specified third party participants will evaluate the readiness to open up again.
Even though it can seem like the majority of the work has been done by this point, the start-up phase tends to have a lot of issues. Specifically, a lot of the accidents happen in this phase and some of them can be considered to be major accidents.
The primary issue here is that there are new procedures that need to be executed for the first time, and you are dealing with a very uncertain situation with unfamiliar procedures and an influx of data. This can be a recipe for disaster.
Because of time pressure, for example, data is often left unverified, which can lead to safety risks. You also have a lot of new data and new procedures that have to be distributed. It can be difficult to make sure that people are executing those procedures correctly or that they have been properly trained to do so.
For most organizations, there is also a review phase that takes place sometime during the two weeks following turnaround completion. The review phase involves reporting, system performance analysis and debriefing on the shutdown process as a whole. Does the system work as expected? Is there anything you learned from the operation? This final review phase is when you answer these questions and hopefully streamline your processes for the future.
During the review phase, primary challenges include incomplete data or undefined and unmeasurable KPIs. You may learn at this stage, for example, that you do not have all the data you need to accurately carry out a review. How long did a work order take? How often did you reschedule work orders? How often did a lock-out keep a technician from completing a repair? Has all of this data been collected? That is always the question, and you may not find out that the answer is no until it is too late.
The same is true of KPIs. You started the turnaround process with a cost/benefit analysis. Is everything in place to complete that analysis? Are you able to track KPIs and use that information to learn from the experience? Oftentimes, the answer is no, and the review is not as satisfactory as you would like.
Mitigating Unavoidable Challenges
These are just some of the common challenges that organizations like yours face during each phase of the turnaround process. Fortunately, many of these challenges can be overcome with some of the best practices and tools that we have seen in the industry. Read about our best practices for overcoming these challenges.