Plant Construction & Process Technology

The Lean Revolution

Why the Capital Plant Industry is About to Undergo its Own Lean Manufacturing Transformation

11.04.2013 -

Plant Design and Construction - Lean Manufacturing principles have transformed product quality, efficiency and business agility in the volume manufacturing sectors such as the automotive industry. But the capital plant sector has sought unsuccessfully for the key to unlock Lean Construction. That key now exists and, just as in vehicle manufacturing, we can expect to see first movers gain a dominant competitive advantage.

There are three main reasons why the plant industry has so far been unable to develop lean methodologies:

  • Every plant project is unique and construction invariably starts before design is complete. There is little scope for developing business processes ‘in the lab', so every project carries a high level of business risk. Even where this can be mitigated by modular, standardised design, the underlying problem remains.
  • Complexity is further increased by the use of multiple contractors, on different aspects of the project, across multiple locations and with interlocking contractual conditions which determine what information they are allowed to access.
  • Projects are essentially ‘open-loop' processes. Designers and planners issue deliverables in the expectation that the downstream fabrication and construction processes will implement them accurately and on time. In practice, this rarely happens. Deviations usually come to light late in the construction sequence, when corrective action is most costly and time-consuming.

Not surprisingly, research has found that three out of ten projects encounter problems serious enough to keep lawyers busy and around one in ten bankrupts the companies involved. Clearly, there is huge economic benefit to be gained, and not only by the contractors (EPCs) themselves. Project overruns are costly for their clients.

Technology Breakthrough

Uniqueness and complexity are inherent in plant projects, but their open-loop nature doesn't have to be. Here lies the key. If we can create a feedback loop between the engineering, design, fabrication and construction stages, an integrated end-to-end process becomes possible.

The technology breakthrough that enables this is the ability to integrate as-built fabrication and construction geometry with the as-designed model in a common 3D design environment. This is achieved by the use of 3D laser surveying equipment and powerful software which exploits the data generated. High-resolution 3D laser scanners are now affordable, compact and easy to use. Almost like the digital camera, they can be used easily at any point in the construction process with minimal disruption. Fabricators can use them as part of their inspection processes, returning accurate 3D models of, say, individual pipe spools. Module builders can similarly create highly accurate and finely detailed as-built models for validation against the design model.

The immediate benefit is that a deviation from design can be identified at the earliest possible stage, enabling prompt and informed corrective action. According to the nature and severity of the deviation, correction may entail just the rework of an individual item, or the adjustment of adjacent design which has not yet been released for production. Increasingly, major plant modules are often fabricated on the opposite side of the world from the construction site; discovering and correcting a deviation before dispatch is clearly preferable to discovering it only after the module arrives on site.

3D Plant Design

This new capability has been embodied in the latest generation of 3D plant design software. By itself, this will not transform an EPC into a Lean Construction business overnight, but it does provide the long-awaited key to unlock new business. Lean is not a goal to be achieved but a journey to be undertaken and there will be considerable changes in project execution practices along the way. Perhaps the most challenging will be changing the nature of contractual relationships between the various project participants. Currently, a subcontractor or supplier is incentivized only to deliver the specified information or materials to the next immediate customer in the chain. There is no stake in the successful outcome of the overall project and no commercial incentive to improve business processes between companies who may well be in competition with each other.

This challenge is not insuperable. Some years ago, one major operator in the oil & gas industry set about standardizing on a common 3D design solution and requiring all its contractors to share work using it. There was much initial skepticism among the contractors, who had concerns about loss of intellectual property. However, by working with its contractors to establish appropriate commercial relationships and means of sharing information securely, the company evolved a highly successful, collaborative structure which benefits all parties. The key to such change is to establish, maintain and demonstrate trust.

Role Model: Automotive Industry

One of the most significant benefits of lean processes is business agility. Previously, automotive component manufacturers were very good at producing long production runs of identical parts, regardless of their quality or the actual demand for them. The result was excessive stockholding, wastage and considerable business inertia. Today, each supplier has a direct stake in the quality of the end product and can flex its output rapidly to meet demand fluctuations. By establishing a closed information loop embracing all project participants, a similar situation can be created in the plant industry.
Replacing our old 2D CAD systems with modern 3D design systems transformed the nature of engineering.

Today, new technology is about to trigger a similar transformation in the way we execute complex capital projects. The potential gains are considerable, both for the EPCs themselves in reducing project cost and delivery time, and for their clients in earlier revenues from better quality, less costly plants. Both will be able to respond more effectively to new market opportunities.

A Digital Plant Information Asset

There is an additional, less obvious benefit to the plant operators. It is now possible to reverse engineer laser-scanned as-built models into intelligent 3D design models, and also to add intelligence to as-built models. This enables the 3D design model to be progressively adjusted as the project progresses so that at handover it accurately represents the true state of the finished plant. This is a genuinely new capability that greatly facilitates asset lifecycle management. Upgrades and revamps become quicker, cheaper and less disruptive if the contractor has precise knowledge of the as-built plant. Even minor repairs, such as replacing a damaged pipe, are easier because the replacement can be made from accurate data generated from the plant model. And the model can form the core of a Digital Plant information asset which supports every aspect of safe and efficient operations.

Just as the pioneers of Lean Manufacturing came to dominate the automotive industry, so will first movers into Lean Construction rapidly gain the advantage in the plant industries. And we will all benefit.