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A disastrous fire in a U.S. methanol plant reminded me of the findings and recommendations published in a 2006 book on the topic of “Maximizing Machinery Uptime.”  In it, Fred Geitner, my respected colleague and co-author of nine books on matters of machinery-reliability improvement, provided details regarding his then “fresh-off-the-press” close look at North American oil refineries. 

Interested in how top-tier achievers were typically organized to reap high reliability, Fred found that most of those sites had structured their Mechanical Technical Support (MTS) groups or departments along discipline lines. In short, they designated machinery, static equipment, I&E (Instrument & Electrical), and other functional reliability specialists for operational and plant support. As explained below, the term “support” is very important here.

(Note: Although this article focuses on refinery operations, the information in it can be applied in other types of plants.)

Click Here For A PDF List Of Heinz Bloch’s 24 Books,
Including 9 Co-Authored With Fred Geitner


Most North American refineries have abandoned the old technical service concept. While technical service implies reacting to a call for assistance, technical support enhances operations when economic and risk reduction considerations favor such pro-active support. Thus, the service concept with its reactive-maintenance connotations and broad (but shallow-depth) expertise and responsibilities is no longer advocated. Only when workload, cost, and reliability levels demonstrated by meaningful Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are sufficiently matured as compared to those of Best-in-Class (BiC) companies may a blending of discipline activities occur. In other words, there is compelling evidence that many refineries and process plants benefit from the specialization of their engineers. Likewise, many others could yet benefit from organizing for continuous improvement by giving more weight to proactive expert input.

Common insight has been that in less mature plant organizations there will be a “fire-fighting” function or a front-line involvement of mechanical specialists. However, to achieve real gains and continuous improvement, there must be a clear separation of this firefighting function from another important activity. The “other activity” is best described as the reliability engineer’s role. This is defined by its objective of addressing and eliminating chronic, repetitive or “bad actor” problems. Essentially, it separates day-to-day activities from long-term improvement and upgrading endeavors.

In accordance with this thinking, the best refineries in North America now typically have at least one machinery (“rotating equipment”) reliability specialist (engineer or technologist) in maintenance. This professional is backed up either by a senior machinery reliability specialist in an on-site (e.g., new projects) section, or a group of specialists located at the facility’s corporate headquarters (HQ) organization.

It is vitally important that new projects of any size are adequately supported and accompanied by knowledgeable and experienced specialist engineers to keep potential reliability problems away from new plant as the project moves through its various cycles or phases. The reliability professional must have input here, and he or she must be trained, prepared, encouraged, and nurtured to become an effective contributor for the ensuing specification, evaluation and cost justification tasks associated with each project phase.

We have always taken the position that organizational alignment is unimportant as long as there are two key ingredients that are indispensable for ultimate success:

1.   The reliability person must be a voracious reader, resourceful, and “a networker.” He/she must collect and read books, proceedings, papers, articles, etc.  He/she must believe in (and single-mindedly practice) Root Cause Failure Analysis (RCFA). He/she must loathe repeat failures with a real passion (because these are manifestations of his/her failure to uncover the root cause).

2.   He/she cannot be told by a maintenance department that all that’s important is “firefighting.”

It’s up to Corporate and/or Plant Management to figure out what is required organizationally, motivationally, or financially, or from the point of view of decades-long training and nurturing (career planning) to comply with these two fundamental and non-negotiable requirements.

In essence, then, the reliability engineers’ duties should be to:

1.    Develop and co-ordinate reliability maintenance programs. Evaluate Reliability Maintenance (RM) effectiveness.

2.    Develop a system of economic evaluation of the RM effort by publishing and stewarding to meaningful key performance indicators (KPIs).

3.    Review new equipment specifications and drawings with projects engineers for reliability and maintainability.

4.    Make recommendations for improvements before equipment is ordered.

5.    Perform or guide equipment condition and performance monitoring.

6.    Perform or guide on-stream analysis of major equipment issues or problems. Solve these problems in a timely manner by whatever means required.

7.    Prepare Inspection, Maintenance, Overhaul and Repair (IMO&R) checklists for major machinery trains.

8.    Develop scheduled IMO&R (Inspection/Maintenance/Operation & Repair) requirements for major machinery trains and accompany/monitor them.

9.    Develop (scientific) recommendations for stocking only superior spare parts.

10.  Develop “Bad Actor Management” policies.

11.  Provide engineered designs for making repairs, replacements, and design changes, as well as upgrading on maintenance projects.

12.  Consult with other departments, other refineries, professional associations, and corporate HQ engineering (if available) concerning equipment problems.TRR

EDITOR’S NOTE: As many readers know, Heinz Bloch has been writing about this and related topics in articles and books for several decades. His latest books revisit and synthesize such concepts, and much additional information is contained in titles recently added to the PDF list that’s provided in the link at the beginning of this article. According to Heinz, had those books been consulted by the right managers at grass-roots plants since around 2006, “substantial grief could have been avoided.”                    

Heinz Bloch’s long professional career included assignments as Exxon Chemical’s Regional Machinery Specialist for the United States. A recognized subject-matter-expert on plant equipment and failure avoidance, he is the author of numerous books and articles, and continues to present at technical conferences around the world. Bloch holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Mechanical Engineering and is an ASME Life Fellow. These days, he’s based near Houston, TX. 

Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, asset management, continuous improvement, professional deverlopment