Process Engineering Prioritization Challenges | RefinerLink

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Process Engineering Prioritization Challenges

By Org Coach Thomas

Oct 17, 2016

Operating modern day refineries require different technical organization design.


What ever happened to the good ole days where process engineers actually focused on process optimization? For those who have noticed, those days are long gone.


Incidents such as BP Texas City and Tesoro Anacortes have structurally changed how engineers spend their day to day activities. Not that oil refineries previously neglected process safety responsibilities – it’s just that today this is priority 1, 2, and 3.


Society today has a zero tolerance stance towards refinery incidents. The rules of the refining game have substantially changed over the last decade, but many refining companies have not adopted their organization structure to manage this change.


The result? Process engineers now spend 90% of their time in Hazops, MOC reviews, relief studies, and other process safety/loss prevention type activities. The remaining 10% of their time is spent reconciling budgets and taking CBTs.


If companies do not acknowledge the issue with this, they will soon find themselves sliding quartiles in Solomon net cash margin.

I am not saying to ignore PSM. I agree that PSM should be Priority 1 for refiners. You cannot make money if you are not reliable - period. What I am saying; however, is that the entire refinery organization should not be focused solely on PSM.


Have we forgotten about reliability engineers, metallurgical engineers, mechanical engineers, project engineers, environmental engineers and the dozens of other engineers supporting refinery functions? It is my firm belief that majority of the refineries out there under-utilize these other engineering disciplines.


Sure, these other engineers may not understand the process as well as process engineers. That doesn’t mean that we cannot teach them. A refinery manager once told me that “you can train any person to do any job in a refinery”. I agree with this principle, and I support efforts to efficiently utilize all refinery resources to manage today’s process safety challenges.


So what does this all mean?


It means to stop inviting process engineers to every meeting in the refinery. The other engineers in business units need to start pulling their own weight. All engineers need to be multi-dimensional, or your organization will just get bogged down.


Train the plant or reliability engineer to facilitate decisions on process safety. Project engineers need to do more than just cost estimates and project management. HES specialists need to contribute more than work standard documentation and compliance assurance reporting.


If refineries do not increase effectiveness of their personnel resources there will only be two outcomes:



  • Optimization efforts will decline, resulting in lower gross margin capture


Both roads lead to declining net cash margin and overall competitiveness.


You may have gotten away with lower efficiency business during these past few years. However, with the North American midcontinent crude disconnect gone and product demand destruction impacts becoming more visible, your inefficient org capability will be evident.


It will be prudent for refineries to address the prioritization challenges of today’s process engineers quickly. Have an honest conversation with yourself. Do you really believe that your organization is structured the best way possible?

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  • Paul Gallagher :   The ability of the process engineers in the refining environment to make changes in the process is sometimes dictated by the relative power of the process organization and the operations organization. Operations generally is very hesitant to make changes which may disrupt operations. This is especially true for the "unproven" process engineers. Process must develop a trusting relationship with Operations. Success is not always in the technology but is a big part of working relationships.

    Oct 19, 2016

  • Prakash Shende :   Technologically there are four pillars in Oil Refinery Operations , Process/Technologist, Maintenance and Inspection . If the load is equally shared then only you can build the high rise building (performance).

    Oct 19, 2016

  • Wei Chiao Kuo :   I perceived that the concept of "you can train any person to do any job in a refinery”. provided the person is still in the learning mode and willing to be trained and work as a change agent.

    Oct 22, 2016

  • Sergio Jaramillo :   I think the answer to this question is another question: how committed is the refinery management team to squeeze the last penny out of the barrel? In a refinery I used to worked at, after an internal commercial review it was highlighted PEs were not spending enough time on unit optimization due to the overload of PSM, MOC and unit monitoring requirements. After they realized how much money they were leaving on the table due to missed optimisation opportunities, it was easy to justify re-structuring the team (without increasing head count) to create a small process optimization team. Creating optimization KPIs and tracking daily deviations in $ made a significant difference in refinery profitability. Making more money makes sense right? Well, unfortunately in some organizations it seems internal politics are more important that business survival in a highly competitive environment.

    Oct 22, 2016

  • Yılmaz Bayraktar :   Process engineers will be more successful if önle they can built better relations with Operations which only will be possible if they can start their carrier for a year or two in operations. Ownership and self confidence as well as relations will peak.

    Oct 22, 2016

  • Jan de Jong :   Good question. My view is that the process engineer in the refinery is concentrating on the daily business (firefighting) and does not have time for a more thorough analysis to study the data to optimise the plant (which is ranked as something for a rainy day).

    Oct 22, 2016

  • Tom Kemp :   They are bogged down in paperwork and activities not directly related to troubleshooting or improving the process. The more time you spend in meetings or at your desk doing non-engineering work, the less time spent in the field or working on solving the problems that only a process engineer can solve.

    Oct 22, 2016

  • Adam Stafievsky :   You know what else will help? Actually making an effort of training young Engineers through apprenticeships and professional coursework/seminars. I have seen a lot of times there is lack of knowledge transfer for one or more reasons. Ask yourself this, if you train someone how to do the job better, will it make your life potentially better too? Something to consider, senior Engineers. As for me I always find an opportunity to train somebody willing, crosstrain or even find a small opportunity to transfer knowledge while working on current tasks. Silos of knowledge help no one, especially when people retire, pass on your learning and you will be amazed how much better your team will function.

    Oct 22, 2016

  • Henry schloss :   the comments are very true. when i started 28 years as a process engineer my first boss told me go to the units and exchange knowledge(operators). i do not want to see you in the office. especially when the units àre down for maintenance.

    Oct 30, 2016

  • Andy Roberts :   Well said! Safety is paramount....... but a shut down refinery as a result of poor Optimization and low margins........ is not the safe outcome that stakeholders want! Significant refinery margin value can be lost by not employing cutting edge optimization, automation and data analysis tools in the hands of the right personnel

    Oct 30, 2016

  • Patrick Garrett :   As a young engineer, I didn't know what I didn't know... henry schloss's boss from 28 years ago matched my boss about 8 years ago! Another thought is that sometimes you have to let the young process engineer make a mistake, even if it costs the refinery money. This is an unpopular opinion at times, but a small mistake can lead to huge lessons, relationship, and eventually confidence boost as learn from it.

    Nov 06, 2016

  • Rick Manner :   It is very difficult to plan and schedule properly and make correct crude selection when nobody on the units is paying attention to what the actual constraints are and how accurately it matches the LP (or other) model used by Planning, At a minimum the process engineers should verify that their are running against the constraints the same constraints the LP is predicted and that those constraints are real.

    Dec 11, 2016

  • Brian Clancy-Jundt :   The difference between having no production / process engineers and having the best on the market is only about 10 % on the profit margin. If I owned a billion dollar asset, I sure would want that 10 % back. I would also like my billion dollar investment protected, the community nearby happy, and all employees safe. PHAs, MOCs, and incident investigations are an invaluable tool to train engineers to think about how the process works. As a young engineer I volunteered to be on as many incident investigations as possible. I volunteered for 1-2 PHAs per year. Taking the process side of HSE seriously is important to your training as a production engineer, but they are not enough by themselves. We still need to make sure our sites make that extra 10 %.

    Jan 08, 2017

  • Brian Clancy-Jundt :   All of those experiences along with working thru-out the plant in all the major processes and some training in distillation have given me the knowledge to create much more than 100 times my salary per year in value for the company. Ideally the senior engineers use PHA's, incident investigations, and MOCs as teaching opportunities for the young engineers who carry all the action items. At some point the young engineer needs to start creating value beyond the process HSE side and should be allowed enough time to do so. Many companies never allow time for the young engineers to get out of process HSE into the land of process optimization. Part of the problem is the visibility over value. Part of the problem is that they get the young engineers so focused on the management track thru financial incentives that few finish the course to become a lead engineer.

    Jan 08, 2017

  • Brian Clancy-Jundt :   In the end, many companies are contenting themselves only half of the benefit of production / process engineers. They are letting go of that last 5 % of profitability to go after the other 90 % in running the plant safely due to lack of rewarding value creation, lack of shielding process / production engineer from activities that could be done by others, and lack of value in the technical track. Letting that 5 % go seems like a shame, when companies have the head count to get it all.

    Jan 08, 2017

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