Krska’s Chronicles are intended to share hard won experience from many years as a process engineer. If companies struggle with corporate memory perhaps they will help.
I’ve been a Process Engineer for nearly 40 years. I’ve worked on every type of equipment used in upstream oil and gas, covering a broad range of technical roles: conceptual and detailed designs, green and brown field projects, trouble shooting, commissioning, debottlenecking, optimising production, energy utilisation, environmental protection, process control, safety systems, operating procedures, advanced steady state and dynamic simulations and other computer software development. I have worked in senior roles with equipment and service suppliers, design companies, EPCs, large and small operating companies and consultancies. I’ve worked on over 90 assets across more than 20 countries; I have recruited and built large and small teams and mentored several engineers to become chartered.
So, you might expect that I have learnt a thing or two across the years. Well yes, I have, and I’m not done learning yet. I find it both sad and frustrating that there appears to be little or no corporate memory. I keep coming across the same mistakes, poor practices and missed opportunities time and time again. To be frank, I see even more fundamental mistakes made today than say 10 years ago.
Experience isn’t something we get by doing the same narrow thing over and over again. Mowing the grass every week for 20 years won’t make a person a master gardener no matter how big the lawn is. It’s a well-used phrase ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. There are millions of would be football managers tuned into the TV every week that could do a better job, or so they say. There will be a significant number who genuinely believe it, because they have no idea what it takes.
I think that our business is reluctant to acknowledge the issue of limited experience. Experience can’t be reliably represented in a person’s résumé or list of hyped job titles. It needs to be tested and proven, but who by? Would you be recruiting the experience if you had it? Valuable experience is expensive, perhaps it just easier to just gloss over the issue with a CV on file. Isn’t it time we started trying to address this apparent lack of corporate knowledge and pass on some key experiences?
There is a history of terrible avoidable consequences. We sit up and take notice of these and strive to avoid them happening again. But it isn’t that simple, many of these tragedies don’t have a single cause and it is the smaller details that line up like holes in Swiss cheese that make these happen. How about the near misses and less tragic ones we don’t hear about? Many of these are hugely expensive to business, yet they keep being repeated. If we pay attention to those, we will also avoid many of the larger tragedies and financial disasters.
We now have technology at our disposal that can reach previously unimaginable audiences. The best tools we had when I was an undergraduate were a slide rule, pen, piles of stuffy books, and don’t forget the triangular graph paper. It is astounding how we managed with these tools. If you have a spare weekend, have a go at doing a three-phase multi-component flash calculation using a basic non-programmable pocket calculator. Seriously, don’t try it; it will be a weekend you may never get back. It is very impressive what we can now do with computers and how quickly that technology has developed. I think I’ve kept pace with these developments reasonably well. I’m passionate about what can be achieved with process dynamic simulation as a ‘life of asset’ tool (rather than a project after thought), remote working, new business models and sharing experience. This is balanced by a recognition of what we have tried before; I’ve seen a few business models come and go, then come around again. Change for change sake doesn’t imitate progress.
We need to be careful how much trust we put into computer programs, they can be a short cut to making more serious mistakes. They reduce the requirement for thought and it often seems they have removed it altogether. It isn’t enough to be able ‘crank the handle’ and build a simulation; having an understanding as to what is expected from it is way more important. Today there are numerous simulators and computer software tools at our disposal. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen one that isn’t flawed in some way. As their complexity grows, so does the scope for them being wrong. In some cases the errors and omissions have been significant and dangerous. I firmly believe that having a deeper understanding of the fundamentals and a clear expectation as to what the computer output should be is essential before turning it on.
For example, I think I will cry if I see one more dynamic simulation that has auto tuned level controllers on a separation train. The separators are supposed to absorb flow disturbances not pass them on.
Similarly, why do we see so many compressors with inoperable suction pressure controllers? Suction pressure is not always the best master controller and often they are inappropriate, there is this thing called degrees of freedom. Just because it is the default controller and the compressor vendor wants it, doesn’t make it right for the process.
With the chronicles I propose to pass on some of my experiences, by way of case studies, concentrating on the myths, mistakes and missed opportunities I see being repeated. Hopefully these ‘war stories’ will be valued and their moral made clear. Here’s Part One to get you started.
Experienced practitioners might well think I’m ‘teaching my granny to suck eggs’, but trust me these are genuine and often repeated. They clearly aren’t so obvious to all, otherwise they wouldn’t be repeated. They can have serious economic and safety consequences, so let’s pass them on. I would rather you groan at how obvious these may seem than have them happen again.
Sucking eggs made simple from an 1890s Punch magazine cartoon:
“You see, Grandmama, before you extract the contents of this bird’s egg by suction, you must make an incision at one extremity, and a corresponding orifice at the other.” Grandmama’s response is to the effect, “Dearie me! And we used to just make a hole at each end.”