Commodity markets will always see fluctuation in price. Raw materials or outputs may be affected, leading to big profit opportunities. The operators that are best-prepared to boost production to match surges in prices or demand are best-positioned to maximize profits.
But the drive to produce more when profits are high can have hidden dangers attached: defects in equipment can surface when it is run harder or longer than usual without proper maintenance, and when different shifts of workers attempt to handle sudden increases in production. These risks can lead to significant consequences, including reduced employee safety, curbed production, lost capital and missed opportunities to meet market needs.
Examples of unexpected events include a 2015 fire at a petroleum refinery in Delaware, which involved a fluid catalytic cracker used with the oil conversion process. Another example was when five workers died at a refinery explosion in the state of Washington. This particular event involved a fire and explosion after restarting boilers that were recently under maintenance. Unfortunately, workplace accidents occur more frequently in situations with increased demand.
A strategic reliability plan ensures that plants know whether they are ready to run at full capacity with minimal risk. Just because a machine is running doesn’t mean it is running efficiently, nor can slow-developing failures be expected to stay hidden long enough to meet commitments. Reliability means understanding the health of an asset, without uncertainty, regarding its ability to meet the needs of the business. Workers can then get the most out of the equipment and production facilities without the risk of causing dangerous situations.
Planned downtime is time allotted in advance for making equipment upgrades and maintenance. Conversely, unplanned downtime is when unforeseen equipment problems or other issues restrict operations or result in facility shutdowns. Plants and facilities performing in the lowest quartile have 86 percent availability and most of their downtime is unplanned. Those numbers are important indicators of the risk a company takes on in boosting production to capture profits.
Conversely, companies that manage reliability for Top Quartile Performance see 97 percent facility availability on average. Those same companies manage the health of their assets and have a very small amount of unplanned downtime. They are much less likely to have an unforeseen catastrophic failure while stretching to boost production goals. There should be a realistic balance in acknowledging the need to increase revenue and profitability and the risks of equipment failure by doing so.
Companies in the Top Quartile are proactively maintaining equipment rather than reacting to failures. This approach provides the basis for informed decisions on the risk of boosting production. By comparison, plants in the lowest quartile are almost two orders of magnitude more likely to have an unplanned event and may be taking a significant safety risk by running their assets, exhausting them and causing bigger problems in the attempt to secure more profits. Workplace accidents in these settings tend to occur when plants are not operating normally. Don’t forget, an investment in reliability drives improved safety.
A company with a uniform, systematic maintenance process in place throughout all of its sites and facilities means the company can answer market demand when there are unexpected surges. It is a full-scale effort. Companies can consider working with reliability experts and consultants that can help them identify and harness predictive data to help prioritize work. By having access to networked equipment and consulting experience, facilities can be monitored in real time, taking a more predictive, intelligent approach to managing facilities and answering the call when the opportunity for super profits comes along.