Facility Management & O&M

Donnelly ... EPCs can leverage their process modelling and engineering skills.

Donnelly ... EPCs can leverage their process modelling and engineering skills.

How to keep process plants in top order

PAUL DONNELLY of AspenTech* explains to Gulf Construction how EPC firms working in the Middle East can generate new revenue streams from operations and maintenance (O&M), while helping process plant owner-operators minimise unplanned downtime.

August 2019

With the constant threats of unpredictable capital budgets, geo-political uncertainty, and energy-cycle swings hanging over their heads, engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firms are always looking to new areas for growth.

As there are so many more assets in operation than are currently being planned, designed or built, forward-looking EPCs are developing offerings targeting the operations and maintenance (O&M) phases of the asset lifecycle.

In a recent survey in which AspenTech participated, 93 per cent of participating EPC executives said that finding new sources of revenue from O&M was an important initiative.

 Survey responses also showed that the top focus areas for new revenue streams from O&M include:

• Operational decision support;

• Dynamic modelling and operator training (OTS);

• Reliability;

• Energy management;

• Equipment monitoring; and

• Updating models used in planning and scheduling.

Here’s how EPCs can leverage their existing process modelling and engineering skills to enhance and optimise the operation of plants in these core areas and generate needed new revenues for their firms:

• Use of models for operational analysis and decision support: One of the most beneficial uses of modelling during operations is for enhanced decision support. There is simply too much at stake to rely on operator experience alone for optimising operations. From health and safety to throughput and profitability, operational decisions affect the metrics most important to your operator customers.

Model-based decision support leverages online and offline models to facilitate “what if” scenario planning, as well as unit monitoring and troubleshooting, to yield better results. Putting this information into a useful format and making it accessible to operators allows the improvement programme to scale, resulting in faster and greater return on investment for the asset owner.

The role of the EPC is to update design models, incorporating any upgrades and repairs and to use actual operational data to tune models to reflect real operating conditions. Use of models to inform operations and maintenance can help you differentiate yourself in an increasingly competitive business environment. It’s also increasingly important to operators as older, experienced personnel leave the workforce.

• Dynamic modelling for operator training and advanced process control (APC): Commissioning and start-up delays often frustrate operators and can cost millions in lost revenue. Unforeseen conditions, unplanned incidents and inexperienced personnel can all contribute to problems and delays. Delivery of an operator training simulation (OTS) system can help provide a smoother plant start-up and speed time to revenue for both you and your customer. Use your dynamic modelling expertise and best-in-class OTS software for the fastest path to commissioning and operations. Keeping the OTS model up-to-date can also help you stay close to your customers, while improving both safety and operator effectiveness.

Another downstream use of both steady-state and dynamic models is to improve the workflow of developing and deploying APC. Process models developed during the design phase can serve to define the APC control strategy and to obtain “seed” models for calibrating the controller online. Validated dynamic models can further be employed by process engineers for enhanced operational decision support.

• Reliability, availability and maintainability: When it comes to asset maintenance, unplanned downtime can drain millions of dollars from the operators’ profit and represents one of their most acute pain points. Operators often make sub-optimal decisions based on operator experience alone, without incorporating data analysis. They may also hurt plant performance and drive up costs by making decisions based on static, localised views of a situation. When it comes to optimising a maintenance programme, today’s plants are just too complex for intuitive, isolated decision making.

Sophisticated modelling capabilities, often the domain of the EPCs, are required for creating and updating the process, equipment and reliability models as assets are repaired, maintained and upgraded. Use these models for enhanced decision support, or combine them with actual plant operating data and analytics to provide value-adding analysis and recommendations to your operator to help optimise their maintenance plans.

• Energy management services: Energy costs for operating a typical refinery can exceed $50 million annually, accounting for half of the non-feedstock operating budget. This represents a significant opportunity for engineering companies to add value, as most operators are still making decisions that impact their energy-use-based engrained historical practices, rules of thumb, perceived reliability impacts or the opinions of personnel.

Creating a model of the plant’s utility system and connecting it to plant operating data can provide required guidance to achieve the lowest operating costs while meeting reliability targets and profits. Often, the operator lacks the modelling skills and tools necessary to achieve the optimal economic operation of the facility. The opportunity for the EPCs is to leverage their skills and tools to help the operator unlock two to five per cent of energy savings.

EPCs can also assist by expanding design models into plant-wide process and utility models and using those models for developing energy optimisation strategies. These modelling activities can also surface opportunities for revamp and debottlenecking capex (capital expenditure) investments for site-wide energy improvement projects that can generate new revenues for the EPCs. Such investments often provide payback within one year and can be very attractive to the operators.

• Equipment performance monitoring: Helping owner-operators optimise the performance of their equipment is another way for EPCs to generate more revenue from the operating phase of the asset’s lifecycle. Fouling of exchangers in the refinery preheat train alone is estimated to cost operators $4.5 billion per year. EPC firms can leverage modelling to predict fouling levels over time and recommend optimised cleaning schedules that can save operators millions.

Another critical piece of equipment for monitoring and optimising is the distillation column. Troubleshooting poorly performing columns can help operators get the most from their assets. Engineering firms can help find optimal configurations that allow for operation closer to constraints, increasing capacity while still meeting product specifications. This includes use of process and equipment modelling to determine the root cause of operational issues such as excessive column weeping and flooding while avoiding disruptive and expensive physical inspection of the column.

• Planning model updates: Many process plants operate in markets where demand for end products and available feedstock supplies fluctuate. To deal with these changing market conditions, most plant operators use sophisticated planning and scheduling software to optimise their production plans. Changing feedstocks and outputs means that plant operating conditions will also fluctuate and operators must ensure that their existing infrastructure can handle new feedstocks. Models used for planning and scheduling must, therefore, be updated to support optimised production planning.

EPCs can help owners better optimise production plans by keeping the models used in planning up to date. By using process models that incorporate actual operating conditions, operators will get more accurate results for planning and scheduling, which is critical to achieving a higher return on their assets. Refinery-wide modelling is also an opportunity for EPCs, who can help guide their customers in developing new strategic plans inclusive of capex upgrades to capitalise on broader market dynamics.



Throughput, quality and safety are critical objectives for process plant owner-operators, but they sometimes lack the engineering and modelling skills or bandwidth needed to optimise their operations and meet their objectives. EPCs have engineering and modelling capabilities that can help their customers make better operating decisions, train and maintain an effective workforce and minimise unplanned downtime.

Use of online and offline models, powerful OTS and predictive maintenance software, and plant data, can help EPCs add significant value to operators while driving new revenues for themselves that can help diversify their business. Engineering firms can also stay closer to operators and be in a better position learn about and win new capex work at existing and new facilities.


* Paul Donnelly is industry marketing director of AspenTech,  a US-based provider of software and services for the process industries.

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