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Changing Your Approach to Control Can Undermine Plant Performance

Offshore platform

5 Keys to Transitioning from Startup to Optimisation Successfully

When reconnecting with a friend I was reminded of a project during my days working together in Oil and Gas. That job highlighted the difference in skills needed when starting up a process versus those that are needed to optimise for performance. What may seem curious is they’re one and the same.

The site was offshore West Africa on a new field installation outfitted with old equipment. At the time my friend and I were ambitious, young-ish, controls engineers. We’d learned early on with the company to ask lots of questions – just not too many as to appear like 5 year olds – before getting on with a job.

By opening valves, swapping instruments, taking readings, and the like we were usually able to get a sense of how different systems ticked. Hands-on interaction with the processes gave us an intuition that OEM manuals and P&ID schematics simply couldn’t.

Our philosophy was one of systematic tinkering and experimentation. In the end we knew there was only one goal that mattered: Making more product. Using our approach we usually got to our goal fast…usually!!

My friend reminded me of the site’s crew – a group from various nationalities, ages and temperaments. At first encounter two things were crystal clear: From manager to technician they knew the plant like the back of their hand, and they took pride in making it operational. Each had played a role in commissioning the platform and each was certain they knew best how to control it.

Indeed, during handover we were regularly told that the controls didn’t require adjustments – there was nothing to gain. That was in spite of the daily tweaks and routine manual interventions they’d logged during the weeks leading up to our arrival. What struck us as odd was that the same skills that had gotten the platform up and running had seemingly been brushed aside as the job shifted from startup to running and improving performance.

The transition from startup to normal operations requires similar skills and a similar mindset. Even so that transition is one that confounds most teams. No matter the plant’s status there are five principles by my count that are always worth keeping in mind:

1. Take calculated risks

Perhaps “experienced risks” is a better term. No matter, use the knowledge you have along with the shared knowledge of your team to characterise problems and establish possible solutions. By leveraging a larger group’s knowledge and experience it’s easier to develop an action plan that limits any risks to plant and personnel. And don’t let up on experimentation within agreed-to limits.

2. Capitalise on your data

Whether your data is “big” or little, be sure to put it to work. When it shows changes in performance, ask operations, engineering, and maintenance what changed. Data is a valuable resource and plants collect it for a reason. Use it to test your hypotheses and keep mulling it over it until the data makes sense.

3. Identify root-causes

Fixing symptoms may feel good but in the end it may be counterproductive. In fact swapping out a valve or tuning a controller that’s not driving bad behaviour may make matters worse. Community knowledge can help you avoid these mistakes. And if you’re unsure where troublemakers are located then consider technologies that can diagnose performance and isolate a plant’s underachievers.

4. Focus on the bottlenecks

Areas that constrain production present great opportunities for improvement. Often the smallest of improvements to a bottleneck results in significant gains in output. Fortunately, these areas are generally known by most that have been around a plant for even a short period of time.

5. Optimisation is a journey

While startup may end when production begins, optimisation during normal operation is an unending effort. Be sure to apply your knowledge and that of the team’s as it continues to grow. Always start with small and easy fixes to generate momentum for yourself and the wider group. As management might tell you: ROI isn’t a destination…it’s a journey.

While many teams struggle when they transition from startup to normal operations, my experience suggests that it stems from a change in the team’s approach. Many fail to use the same information sharing and systematic experimentation that proved successful early on. If your experiences have uncovered other keys to success, please share them with me and the community here on PII.

Damien Munroe


Damien lends a view of process control and automation that’s born of his experiences in military aviation, offshore oil and gas, precision pharma, and semiconductor manufacture. His education at the

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