Worldwide trends in RAM improvement

A review of the improvements in plant reliability, availability and maintenance that have taken place to ensure better and sustainable results in a competitive market

J Patrick Williams, KBC Advanced Technologies

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Article Summary

Recognising that plant reliability, availability and maintenance (RAM) optimisation is one of the principal opportunities for improving the financial performance of a hydro-carbon processing facility, the industrial community is adopting the same best practices that have proven effective to industry leaders. These practices aim at achieving a sustainable balance between the cost of an action and the risk associated with postponing or cancelling such activity. With proper training and management support, the necessary cost-risk benefit analysis can be done quickly and effectively by using a risk-based decision matrix (RBDM).

The RBDM is the cornerstone for the creation of a risk-based decision-making culture. Specific programmes for optimising turnaround and routine maintenance activities, as well as the development of effective and proactive asset care policies (including inspection, preventative and predictive maintenance plans, and operator surveillance) are constructed around the RBDM concept. This allows filtering activities (work requests) leaving only those that provide a value-added to the organisation, and performed at the right time and lowest cost that warrants the safety and mechanical integrity of the facility.

RAM represents a large opportunity for both short and long-term improvement in the hydrocarbon processing industry. In most cases the economic or safety driving force calling for a change in current practices is known, and the main areas of concern have usually been identified. However, in many sites problems are known but quantification of the lost profit opportunity (LPO) and associated maintenance cost due to these problems are not fully understood or taken into account.

A particular area of neglect is slowdowns due to fouling or other degraded operations where LPO is incurred without proper accountability as only shutdowns are given attention. In these cases, benchmarking through asset modelling can provide accurate and realistic results for what could be reasonably expected as plant RAM performance. It covers minimising the uncertainties embedded in industry surveys, helping the identification and quantification of slowdowns and their relative importance against shutdowns (operating 10 days at 90% capacity is equivalent to one full day of lost production) and quickly evaluating what-if scenarios involving changes in design, operations, and maintenance (including warehousing) strategies.

Once the driving force for the RAM change has been established at a macro level, it is necessary to develop a strategy to identify exactly what needs to be done differently, how and who will be responsible and accountable, in addition to when and how it is going to be implemented and tracked. At this point, clichés such as “world-class performance”, “best practices”, “key performance indicators (KPI)” and “strategy development” start to be discussed and sought-after.

Managers get enthusiastic about becoming pacesetters and many consultants are brought into the plant. However, after a couple of years many of these improvement programmes lose momentum and despite the large sums of money spent in both internal and external resources, these plants never change. Blame is spread (especially on “culture”), managers are changed and the organisation’s financial position and morale are usually badly hit.

What happened? The most likely scenario is that one of the following pitfalls prevented the successful implementation of the RAM improvement programme:

Strategy was never implemented – about 90% of effectively formulated strategies are never implemented

Lack of understanding about the firm’s strategy and reason for change – about 90% of line employees and 60% of managers where strategies are implemented do not understand or know their firm’s strategy (executive teams may be spending less than one hour per month discussing it)

Lack of specific measurable goals that are meaningful for the different levels in the organisation (measuring top level KPIs is not enough!)

Lack of understanding of the reason to change – personnel need to fully understand why and what they are being asked to do differently

Unclear or ambiguous assignment of responsibilities, accountabilities and levels of authority – can prove disastrous in case of an emergency
Setting unrealistic goals and objectives – these lead to frustration and hurt morale. The path forward needs to be corrected as necessary as business drivers can change in time.

Lack of short-term results – too much time is spent studying problems and little is done to implement solutions (a partial solution now is better than the optimum solution a year down the road)

Change in leadership (back to the beginning).

So what can be done to succeed at RAM improvement? The first step of a successful RAM programme consists of developing an objective, cross-functional strategy that is formulated and carried out, avoiding the previously mentioned pitfalls, and addressing the following elements:
- Turnaround maintenance
- Routine maintenance
- Reliability improvement (referring to both reliability and availability).

The successful implementation of a RAM improvement programme that follows the worldwide trends usually closes 50–75% of the performance gap (difference between present results and those agreed as realistic expectations for a best practice operation) within the first 12–18 months of the programme.

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