2015 is behind us – Let’s Look Ahead

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By Greg Alvarado at Inspectioneering Journal. This article appears in the January/February 2016 issue of Inspectioneering Journal

EDITOR'S NOTE

The enormous decline in oil prices over the past 14 months has definitely slowed projects and changed the energy and production landscape, but the major players and some of the “smaller” guys are still around and many are investing in the future. It was amazing to me to see one major, fully integrated oil & gas and chemical manufacturer present their energy consumption/demand forecasts through 2040 at a recent conference. While I am sure arriving at the projections represented their best effort, it is still virtually impossible to predict the swings in the energy supply and demand balance, since so many variables are unknown.

One thing I do know is that, at least in the United States, refineries, petrochemical plants, and chemical facilities must continue to run safely, responsibly, and reliably. They are a vital part of our nation’s security. That includes the raw materials that are part of the supply chain. The relationship between the two is symbiotic. So, these facilities are going to be here for the long haul. Another thing I know is that owner-operators must continue to look for and implement innovative technologies to help them increase productivity and efficiencies if they are going to maintain profitability throughout the highs and lows of a volatile energy market.

Yes, we are seeing a reshuffling of the resource landscape in upstream markets, with companies slashing spending, divesting major assets, selling entire business units, and in many cases over the past year, closing up shop. We see workers moving from the upstream sector, where profits have plummeted and companies are cutting back anywhere they can, to the midstream and downstream sectors where jobs are still available. For the most part, downstream businesses have fared better than upstream due to lower feedstock prices; however who knows how long that will last. 

To paraphrase a business guru (sorry I cannot recall his name), “A business is like a soldier marching up a muddy hill, you either move forward or you are going backward, you are not standing still.” I believe that goes for us as individuals too. I hope companies and individuals realize the need and have the desire to “up our game.” Not to be complacent, but to increase our capacity to execute effectively and efficiently. In order to do this, we must strive to be continuously learning and improving.

We hear of the Internet of Things (IoT) and know of the grand intention for integration of nearly every process. This is evidenced by the plethora of conferences and articles on topics like Big Data, Mobility, Automation, Integration, etc. How much do you know about any of these things? Are you at least interested in learning more about them? Owner-operators will not achieve their goals of effectively establishing robust IOW (integrity operating windows) programs, or successfully implementing risk based inspection/inspection database management/asset integrated management programs, or build better HTHA predictive models, or continuously monitor a high pressure reactor for cracking, or learn how to solve cracking concerns in delayed coking units, without the enhanced knowledge that comes with understanding Big Data and technology.

In the more advanced refineries and chemical plants today, technology is changing the way nearly everything is done. They have become more efficient, safer, and generally more reliable than they were only 5 years ago.  As owner-operators continue to learn about new technologies and how to take advantage of them, we will see continued advancement at facilities around the world.

Still, one of the biggest challenges for companies will continue to be making the most of their human capital. Who is steering the boat, and are we giving these people access to the resources they need to be successful?

We at Inspectioneering would like to challenge all of our readers to make a commitment to continuously educating yourselves on new technologies and practices to improve the safety and reliability of our industry.

  1. While technology is taking off at an extremely fast pace, basic underlying principles are not. With technological innovation comes hyper-specialization. Strive to be excellent at your craft. Learn. Seek to become a true subject matter expert. Understand what you can bring to the business that benefits “the whole”.
  2. Break out of your “silo” and increase your awareness and understanding of the worlds (social, business, technical, regulatory) around you.  Learn how they impact you, and the risks and opportunities associated with them. With all of these exciting specialized components/technologies being developed, find new applications and don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Understand what this integrated, complex train of business processes should look like to get the desired output. Who is determining all of these technology needs? How do you assemble them to produce the kind of results and ROI you need to achieve your goals? These are just a few of the reasons why an understanding of the bigger picture is important.

We all must keep learning and remember to take off the blinders. As Dan Goleman says in his book, “Focus, the Hidden Driver of Excellence,” when we are unaware of our personal condition and that of those around us, we are clueless. When we are unaware of surrounding conditions, we will likely get blindsided. To avoid this, if you aren’t already, network with peers and mentors (show me your friends and I’ll show you your future), reach out to trusted, innovative vendors for information, attend and participate in industry organizations like API, ASNT, ASME, and NACE, and take advantage of the expert insight and lessons learned often found in industry periodicals/technical journals. These are just a few readily accessible ways to “up your game.”

You can also accomplish this by getting plugged into sites that report on the state of your industry, various technologies, and your country, so you can begin to understand the dynamics of the interdependent business, social, and geopolitical relationships that will affect you and your company’s decisions and future. For example, we saw how an event like the HTHA failure at a refinery in Anacortes, WA, or the explosion and fire at a Texas City refinery, or the changing price of crude oil all had significant repercussions on equipment reliability programs and budgets for years to follow. Be aware of and understand your environment and how your knowledge and skills can help can your company achieve its goals.

We promise that in 2016, Inspectioneering remains committed to helping readers “up their game” by supplying educational and informative resources that can help you improve your performance on the job, and make your facility more reliable and productive. We will continue to publish technical articles and other resources that give you a better understanding of new technologies, risk management, AIM best practices, corrosion and damage mechanisms, industry codes and standards, and much more.

If you have suggestions on ways we could improve our offerings, we invite you to send them to us at feedback@inspectioneering.com.  We genuinely want to know how we may serve you better!

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