Maintenance activities in chemical processing plants can be complicated. There are usually a lot of interdependent systems and if one of them is turned off, it can create a bottleneck in the production. Maintenance activities also pose high safety risks to the personnel if they’re not performed carefully and with sufficient preparation.
In this article, we explore the importance of maintenance in the industry and the three different approaches to maintenance that we see. We also take a quick dive into best practices for maintenance in a chemical plant.
Read on to learn more about maintenance in the chemical industry and how to conduct them safely.
Regular maintenance is essential for keeping chemical plants safe for the workers, the people living near them and the environment. Chemical plants often use toxic raw materials in its processes. If they’re not properly handled or if workers were exposed to them, it can cause anything from severe burns to death.
Sustained exposure to toxic chemicals over a long period can cause long term health problems as well. Many raw materials commonly used in chemical manufacture have been proven to cause cancers, lung issues, skin problems, heart conditions, and more in the long run.
Without regular maintenance, the safety measures in place to keep workers from being exposed to these substances may erode. Over time, containers may develop leaks, safety alarms may stop functioning, and workers may be exposed to high concentrations of toxic substances.
Manufacturing chemicals at scale requires highly precise equipment. If these equipment are not properly calibrated or is not functioning as desired, it can affect the quality of production. For instance, for certain reactions to occur, the raw materials have to reach very specific temperatures.
If the equipment can’t get them to the right temperature (or even exceeds that temperature), the materials may not be converted to the end product. The wrong conditions — may be the reactors had higher water content or enough raw materials weren’t present — can trigger other reactions. The output may contain a lot of impurities and entire batches may be wasted.
With regular maintenance, the equipment will be cleaned and calibrated. This improves the quality of output and reduces wastage.
Regular maintenance is essential for equipments to keep functioning, even if they appear to be working as designed. Moving parts need lubrication, coolants have to be topped off, and the wear and tear from the operations have to be monitored and rectified.
With regular maintenance, the organization can plan shutting down the systems or ensure that the processes are continued with an alternate piece of equipment. This ensures minimal loss of production or wastage.
But in the absence of maintenance activities, these equipment may stop working suddenly causing unplanned downtimes. This can create bottlenecks within the production line which can be expensive and may even create material wastage. In case of safety equipment like valves or alarms, unplanned downtimes can be disastrous.
Equipment in chemical plants are often subjected to high pressure, temperatures, and many types of forces. Over time, their capacity to withstand these conditions will deteriorate. For instance, coolants used to keep these equipment may become less effective or leak out, belts and gears may wear off, and tanks and containers may develop scales.
If regular maintenance is neglected, these equipment are likely to fail and can cause more expensive repairs. Some of them may even be beyond repair and may have to replaced. By inspecting and fixing them regularly, organizations can ensure long life span for these equipment, get higher returns out of them, and keep maintenance costs low.
When equipment is left without maintenance or repair for a long time, their efficiency will go down. They will be capable of producing less output and will need more energy to run.
Filters may get clogged or not producing the required level of purity, equipment may start heating up, and grinding or crushing equipment may need more time to produce the same output. This will inevitably increase the operational costs in the form of energy and human resources to monitor these equipment.
By conducting regular maintenance, manufacturing plants can ensure sustained or even improved output at the same cost.
There are three different approaches to maintenance in chemical plants or manufacturing plants.
Reactive maintenance is the ‘run-it-till-it-breaks’ approach to maintenance. Here the organization doesn’t conduct any regular maintenance instead opting to fix it just when the equipment fails inevitably.
The advantage with the reactive maintenance approach is that the business doesn’t have to set aside resources or shut down the process to inspect a piece of equipment that may be working perfectly fine. The disadvantage is that the piece of equipment may just quit unexpectedly and cause unplanned downtimes.
This approach may appear risky at a glance. In fact, its almost as if the equipment is not maintained but rather repaired when it breaks.
But this approach is ideal in many cases. For instance, changing a perfectly functioning belt or topping off lubricant even if there’s plenty left is a waste of time and material.
Reactive maintenance is a good approach if unexpected failure won’t cause safety threats to the workers or equipment. It’s also important that fixing the equipment won’t take too long. If its just a matter of popping on a new belt or changing a valve or some other ten minute job, reactive maintenance may be the way to go. The repair process shouldn’t cause production bottlenecks.
As the name suggests, the goal of preventive maintenance is to prevent equipment from breaking down or failing. Here the organization conducts regular maintenance even if the equipment is working fine at the moment.
The frequency of maintenance is decided based on tests and experience and a margin of error. The decision is an risk management exercises balancing the cost of maintenance, cost of unplanned failure, safety risks, and other aspects.
Preventive maintenance is recommended for equipment that can compromise the safety of workers or the plant if it fails. For instance, all fire and safety equipment are inspected and tested regularly to ensure they’re working as designed. It is also recommended in situations where cost of repairs are way higher than preventive maintenance or if repairing it can take a long time and create production delays.
At a glance, it may be tempting to stick to preventive maintenance for all equipment, but it can incur unnecessary expenses to the organization. If the organization performs maintenance at a higher frequency than necessary, it can cause unnecessary production delays and high costs.
In predictive maintenance, the organization monitors and keep track of equipment parameters and predicts when it may need maintenance. Predictive maintenance is possible due to advances in IoT sensors and AI technology.
In this approach, sensors keep track of equipment vibration, heat, sound, and other factors. When the equipment components start to wear done, they may vibrate at a higher intensity or frequency or starts producing louder sounds.
Organizations can predict when the equipment components deteriorate by monitoring changes in these parameters.
Predictive maintenance brings the best of reactive and preventive maintenance. As with reactive maintenance, the organization don’t have to conduct maintenance if the equipment is working fine. And as with preventive maintenance, organizations don’t have to deal with unplanned downtimes, production loss, or safety risks.
This is similar to how some vehicle’s alert their owners when brake fluid or car batteries need replacement or when their tyre pressures are low.
The first step for effective maintenance is to create an inventory of all of your assets. Collect detailed information regarding all of the assets including asset name, location, manufacturer data, and cost.
It will also be a good idea of keeping the operator details along with the equipment info since they interact with them regularly and will be able to clear any doubts or questions the maintenance personal may have.
Along with the inventory of assets, its also important to keep track of spare parts, components, tools, and other materials you may need for maintenance.
Assets have specific maintenance requirements. Some of them may need minor inspections every month and major maintenance work every 6 months. For some equipment, the maintenance frequency may be based on the operating hours or cycles. In most situations, the manufacturer will provide guidelines on maintenance.
The organization will also have to evaluate the downtime for maintenance and how it will impact production. If it will also have to consider the spare parts, raw materials, tools, and personnel for conducting maintenance activities. If it will cause significant downtime, the organizaiton may have to explore if it needs a spare for the equipment to keep the processes going.
Based on the collected data, create a maintenance strategy for all the assets in the plant that minimizes down time, safety risk, and cost of maintenance. The maintenance strategy should specify how each piece of equipment will be repaired. It should also specify the prerequisites for conducting maintenance.
For example, if the organization is taking a reactive maintenance approach for a piece of equipment, the plant should store always maintain a solid inventory of all spare parts and tools needed to dix it. If going for predictive maintenance, it should specify how the equipment will be monitored and who will be responsible for keeping the equipment functioning.
The maintenance activities should have well defined goals and metrics for it to be efficient and effective. The organization should define and set standards for equipment downtime, unplanned failures, cost of maintenance, and other parameters to optimize the maintenance strategy.
It will also be a good idea to define efficiency and energy consumption of different equipment and find the baselines for it when they’re in optimum state. This data will help understand how equipment performance deteriorates and plan replacement.
Based on the maintenance strategy, create a schedule for preventive maintenance of equipment. Implement monitoring and analysis systems for predictive maintenance and keep track of inventory of spares and tools for reactive maintenance activities.
Assign maintenance personnel for different pieces of equipment and ensure they are properly trained. Ensure that they’re aware of maintenance standards for the equipment and that they work towards improving them.
Be it reactive, predictive, or preventive maintenance, make sure that the responsible teams conduct them on time. Delays in maintenance can affect production, safety, and repair costs. So its vital that when it is time for repairs, everything that the repair personnel will need is available.
All the maintenance data must be regularly analyzed for ineffficiencies. If the maintenance takes too long or if the equipment is failing more often or if maintenance costs are going higher, there must be an issue with the process. Analyze the data, look out for trends or patterns, and improve the process regularly.
Chemical plants have a lot of assets and equipment to maintain. So an ad-hoc approach won’t work. Chemical plants need a well-defined regularly scheduled planned approach to maintenance.
Without a plan or a schedule, odds are the maintenance team will simply miss fixing equipment until they fall apart.
Even with regular maintenance, equipment may face wear and tear during their usage. In some instances this can affect the safety of the devices and can cause costly repairs. But with regular walkarounds, you can spot minor issues quickly and resolve them even between maintenance cycles. This approach can significantly reduce the maintenance costs.
With apps like TargPatrol, organizations can streamline their walkarounds and maintenance processes. It can set up checklists and schedules for their inspections and ensure its conducted regularly.
When conducting maintenance or inspections, its important to document the activities. Documentation ensures that the repairs are conducted regularly without fail. It will also help identify patterns or trends associated with equipment failure and remedy them.
Third-party components may not be properly tested or evaluated and in many cases void your equipment warranty. In case of some devices, third-party components can even affect the safety of workers and the plant.
Make sure that the maintenance personnel uses proper protective equipment and follow safety practices when conducting maintenance. Chemical plants house toxic substances, liquids under high pressure and temperature, and if exposed to them, the maintenance personnel maybe severely injured. Ensure that the safety protocols are part of the maintenance schedules.
TargPatrol is a multi-platform app for conducting maintenance. The platform can help you plan and schedule maintenance, keep track of the the activities, and ensure that they’re conducted on time.
Check out TargPatrol, and improve the maintenance processes in your organization.