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Give Me Your Watch and I’ll Tell you the Time, but Does Your Watch Actually Work?
  • Nov 12, 2020
  • Latest Journal

Authored by Tim Parker, CEng BSc, Director at FEC.

Many operators develop a wealth of knowledge about their plant, its configuration and its operation which is second to none. In most cases when there is an issue it is dealt with quickly and efficiently. However, it is not these types of cases that cause headaches to the facility, the known knowns can be planned for and proactively resolved but when a failure occurs in anything other than a straight forward fault of a known component it is normally because of something out of the ordinary happening or as a result of change. These are often outside of the comfort zone or at a different level of complexity, needing third party support.

The only asset that a pure consultancy firm has is its knowledge, it has no equipment, building or spare parts but the inventory that it does carry is its knowledge; often developed from a background in operations, witnessing a variety of processes, multiple locations and diverse cultural experiences.

Consultants are often dismissed on the assumption they will tell you what you already know, but what if what you know is based on opinion fixed over time, maybe as a result of someone else’s decision making or blinkered by single source experience.The failure of a plant from a technical aspect could be due to a change in operation from the technical configuration which will be unique to that particular plant for a single reason and the resultant causes of failure may not be anything the operational teams have faced before.

The breadth of experience that comes from a global consultancy working with various multinational companies has benefits over long serving single plant experience. Clearly both sets of expertise have benefits, but an independent breadth of view in a courtroom setting is critical.  Experience across a variety of plant configurations leads to a topic expert in the sector. Continuous experience at one company, plant or even location can result in a one track view of how best to do things - “Traditionally we have always done this” which does not demonstrate expertise in the technology as a whole, just that you know the history of this particular setting and the success and failure of changes to its environment over time.

Returning to independence, this is a critical element which is often undervalued. Obvious, maybe, but independence from the facility, independence from equipment suppliers, independence from the decisions that have gone into the development of the facility in question. So maybe the client has a very strong position in the court, but technical statements from within the company ranks can hardly be considered as zero conflict of interest.

The number of clients the average top tier consultant has had over their career directly equates to variety of experience, which is critical in understanding the rationale behind both technical and commercial aspects within any operating facility. Within the metals sector there are so many variables to a production route that means no single recipe of raw materials, process equipment configuration and choice of consumables is correct for any single situation. A change to any one of these may upset the balance of the operation and be the cause of loss of revenue (sub prime product), damage to the facility, and given the type of operations within the metals sector, the potential to take a life.

The commercial situation is also a major factor, it is not uncommon for technically "acceptable" solutions to be approved when "cheap" alternatives (materials, consumables and spare parts) become available, considered by the procurement department as opportunities that are “too good to miss”. In most large organisations, procurement is commercially driven by price but the real cost to the operation is only partially investigated.

Process flows within a facility can vary significantly, this can be due to:
• Organic growth over years of operation with detailed and considered expansion

• Capabilities enhanced for a particular product mix which may or may not be a current target market

• Commercial deals for pre-engineered (built before) solutions but may be a compromised technical solution

• Backward integration with different generations of technological solutions.

No two plants are ever the same; a carbon copy design will have subtle alterations in the ‘as built’ construction, alternative locations offer unique climatic conditions, raw material blends will never be 100% consistent and staff, however trained, will react differently when faced with an instantaneous decision making situation. For the Metals sector, even minor power quality fluctuations from the supply network will change the operation ever so slightly.

The wide range of potential configurations with multiple process stages can have a profound impact on what the traditional solution maybe. The root cause could well be upstream of the perceived fault. The knock-on effects may only be detected downstream, the real issue could be a few process steps removed from a failure (Problem in process Step 1 but not detected and only then revealed after Step 2 or 3), so a holistic view is needed. In some cases this maybe be procured materials or consumables from outside the company. A good example of this was a re-rolling facility that further processed flat rolled stainless steel in coils. The facility in this example used a cold rolling mill to reduce the gauge of the material, then bright annealed and finally temper rolled for the finished surface quality. A mark was appearing on the finished product, identified by the QA team after the temper mill, while nothing was found wrong with the coil quality checks after the previous cold rolling stage. The investigation was thorough and nothing could be found at fault with the temper mill. The fault was finally traced to the third-party supplier of the work rolls fitted to the cold rolling mill that apply the rolling force to the uncoiled stainless steel, two stages before the temper mill. There was a microscopic fault in the surface of some of the work rolls supplied, which damaged the strip but was not detected in the cold rolling process. Only after the heat treatment of the stainless steel on the bright annealing line and further rolling on the temper mill did the fault become visible.

Of course the benefits of variety in experience is not unique to the Metals consultancy sector, it is across all fields of expertise. Legal expertise does not come by just defending one type of case in a career but from cross pollination of experience of different clients and critically the use of case studies of other historic events, which when applied to the technical matters may lead to a better understanding of the root cause.

Variety of experience provides a balanced perspective, the rationale for one may not be the same for another. Choices are made for unique reasons and these have to be understood in the detail to be replicated elsewhere. It is unfortunate when an issue is escalated to litigation, but when it does, a perspective from a step removed will often facilitate a level of comfort that ensures the watch you have is working as it should, before you challenge someone about the time.

Tim Parker is a Director at Farnborough Engineering Consultants (FEC) Limited.
FEC is an international consultancy based in the United Kingdom, which specialises in the metals and building materials sectors.