On August 25, 2017, Harvey made landfall in Rockport, TX has a Category 4 hurricane. In preparation, 25 percent of refineries in the US were shut down as well as hundreds of chemical facilities. Most of these facilities are continuous processes that run for several years at a time, and operators have limited experience with starting up these units cold.
The ASM Consortium attributes human error as causing about 40 percent of identified abnormal situations. ARC has advocated for decades that anything that can be automated, should be automated for this reason. However, ARC’s research indicates an apparent lack of understanding of the value and challenges of this topic, as expressed by the relatively low adoption of advanced procedural control within industry today. Properly designed and commissioned procedural automation will incorporate both manual and automatic tasks in a capable manner.
Relevant and well-planned procedural automation provides the equivalent of having the best operators on hand 24/7/365. Because these systems are deterministic, they can be optimized based on experience. This is the experience leaving the industry faster than it is being replaced. Optimized procedures lead to faster time to profit, less recycle and waste, lower energy costs, and safer operations.
Batch processors are far ahead when it comes to procedural automation. Much of this is by necessity; much of the operation is complex and automation enables efficiencies. Folks with a continuous background tend to discount the applicability to their own processes due to a poor understanding of the similarities of the challenges. After all, a continuous process is simply a really long batch run.
ARC has worked hard to promote procedural automation over the years. I invite you to view some of a video from a presentation at a recent ARC forum, Efficient Automation Execution w/ Dow Chemical's Yahya Nazer. In his presentation, Mr. Nazer shares some of Dow’s experience with procedural automation. ARC clients can also access number reports from the ARC website.
As I sit here in my office outside Houston, just ten miles away from one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world, I listen to the rain fall and can’t help but think about all those units that will shortly resume operations. I appreciate how few major incidents have occurred, and I certainly appreciate the complexity of some of those systems, which I personally helped install. However, I also know that the technology and know-how exists to make startup more efficient and safer.