The most nerve-wracking part of a modular process skid project is that first run after everything has been hooked up, your shiny new system is sitting on that plant floor, and you’re about to find out if it delivers the goods. Or doesn’t. After all the money, effort, and time invested in a project, a smooth startup is paramount to project success.
If you want to feel more confident at that moment just before startup, there are some things you can start doing before design and throughout the life cycle of your project to increase the likelihood of a successful startup. A guaranteed perfect startup is hard to come by, but good project management steps along the way can ensure potential issues are caught early before they become expensive.
It’s a process akin to designing, building, testing, and prepping a NASCAR for race day. You can’t know the race outcome ahead of time for sure, but you can make sure the car, the driver, and your whole operation are in order. If you’re aiming for a winning car that goes the distance, here are a few best practices to adhere to during process system design, fabrication and installation:
Thoroughly Specify Your Dream Car
Before you even approach a design/build firm, you need to be clear on exactly what your ideal process system will look like. The more details you have in this area, the more accurate your quotes are. There are both technical and commercial criteria than determining whether or not a process system will be considered successful in the end. We often think of output parameters – is the product up to spec – but what about return-in-investment criteria? Costs to operate the system? Level of automation?
A thorough specification includes commercial project success criteria, operating parameters, utility requirements, and several other pieces of data. If you’re looking for a detailed example, check out our detailed process planner here.
Keep Your Eyes on the Prize: Create a Design Basis
All the initial engineering on your project should go towards creating a well-rounded design basis; i.e. what you need to design and why. What is the goal of the system? What are the operating requirements, conditions, and environment? What types and quality of materials are going into the system, and what should the end product look like?
All of this needs to not just be decided, but documented in detail in a design basis. Documenting any assumptions, concerns, and unknowns are also important. Once you have it, the design basis is the document that everyone on the project team can refer to throughout design, fabrication, and installation to ensure the system is designed to perform the correct specifications at startup.
Choosing the Right Modular Process Skid Driver
Establishing a design basis leads to engineering a system design that can deliver the end-result in a practical, cost-effective approach. Both the design basis and the engineering to follow should be done by someone experienced in creating proven process systems for your industry and application. The key is finding engineers that have specific knowledge in how manufacturing plants operate and which equipment will balance cost, technical capabilities, and production rates.
Most importantly, take the time to thoroughly interview and visit (when possible) your potential vendors looking for things like detailed examples, good references, and timely follow-through.
Strategic Pit Stops: Design Checklists & Peer Reviews
The system engineering design process should have built-in peer reviews, technical reviews, and checklists based on the design basis. When interviewing process design firms, ask about their practices in this area and the types of design checklists they use. They should be able to provide samples.
Having multiple engineers weigh-in during a peer review or double-checking design against the design basis prevents silly mistakes. Something as simple as forgetting to include baffles in a tank can be expensive to fix once the tank is welded into the modular process skid, but finding it because the checklist said to compare the equipment list to the design basis costs practically nothing.
A few examples of what these checklists and peer-review meetings might cover:
- Verifying percentage complete levels
- Peer reviewing and technically reviewing 2D and 3D models
- NOTE: These should also be reviewed with you, the customer. You have the most intimate knowledge of your particular process technology, so make sure your design team treats you as a partner to be included in major design checks.
- P&ID reviews – do these meet the design basis and the process system requirements?
- Equipment selection vs. design basis
- Pump selection is a great example of why checking equipment against the design basis is a good idea. Often, pumps are selected based on the specifications of the final product. But if the raw materials stream has a different viscosity than the final product, your pump might not work when you need it most.
- What tests will be performed when – defining these tests early in the front-end engineering process ensures you know what the fixed bid price includes and everyone is on the same page about system success criteria.
Built to Win: Modular Process Skid Fabrication & Assembly Best Practices
Fabrication quality assurance practices are extensive, but there are four major areas to vet a potential fabrication shop in. These include:
- Regular quality checks – does the fabrication and assembly team perform regularly perform dimensional checks, pressure checks, alignment checks, plumb and level checks, welding checks, etc.? Regularly checking these items as systems are build makes sure any physical system issues are discovered before the system ships.
- Material control – All heat transfer numbers for pipes and fittings should be monitored and tracked, and materials should always be kept in a controlled and clean environment. Proper segregation between materials of construction and tools used on various types of materials (carbon steel vs. aluminum for example) should always be maintained. Cross contamination or poorly tracked parts can lead to weak spots in welds and off-spec modular process skids.
- Regular testing – Regularly testing against calibration standards and performing integrity checks like pressure tests, weld tests, etc. ensure systems quality will be maintained long after startup and catches issues early.
- Design basis checks – A complete quality assurance program double checks system assembly against the design basis several times during fabrication to ensure things like: structural members are sized correctly, surface finish matches the application, equipment is installed in the right direction (valves especially!), etc. We also make sure all drawings are reviewed by both the shop foreman and then engineering manager against the design basis so that no miscommunication between engineering and fabrication occurs on the drawings themselves.
Proving Grounds: Factory Acceptance Testing
At the end of system fabrication and assembly, a full system QA inspection ensures no details were overlooked. From grounding checks to bold length and torque, this final Factory Acceptance Testing (FAT) QA inspection covers:
- Structural fabrication
- Structural assembly
- Equipment setting
- Pipe fabrication
- Surface finishing
- Electrical panel assembly
- Electrical installation
- Pipe, valve, and mechanical specialties assembly
- Instrumentation assembly
- Packaging, shipping, and rigging devices
We use a green-tag process at our facility and a fully documented QA turnover package that ensures every bolt, weld, and the pipe is thoroughly vetted at fabrication completion. When vetting fabrication facilities, ask for details about their quality assurance practices; even a tiny missed screw can ruin a brand new modular process skid if it manages to slip into the wrong piece of instrumentation.
Once the system is fabricated and installed, more checks should be performed. This final set of check-out procedures can be broken down into three major steps:
- Installation Checkout – Before any chemicals, raw materials, or utilities touch the system, your installation team needs to ensure all system components are installed correctly. Re-run every piece of equipment and the overall system back through the design basis one final time. Good questions to run through include:
- Is what is installed what the design basis called for?
- Do major pieces of equipment like pumps and tanks meet the design requirements?
- Is every piece of equipment and instrumentation installed correctly?
- Does the piping slope and drain correctly?
- Are all valves, instrumentation, equipment, and structures well supported?
- Operational Checkout – Operational checkouts first verify that individual system components work correctly, then the system as a whole. In most cases, you still are not adding real raw materials, but you might run something like water or a neutral gas through the system to verify things like:
- Are flow, temperature, and pressure requirements met?
- Do all system components function properly?
- Are there any unexpected system leaks or pressure drops?
- Does the system perform in harmony?
- Are the controls working properly?
- Production Checkout – production checkout is basically your test lap. This is the first time you push all the real chemicals, raw materials, utilities, and inputs through the process skid. The success criteria here is all about the end product – are we making what we are supposed to make? Is it within normal product conditions and therefore sellable?
If everything looks good on your test lap, you are ready for race day – full modular process skid startup! While this moment will never fully be anxiety-free, if you’ve followed best practices up until now you will feel more confident the wheels aren’t going to fall off as soon as starting flag drops.
And, if you are looking for an experienced pit crew (aka an amazing process design/build firm), please feel free to reach out to EPIC Process Systems or learn more about our capabilities on our applications page.