The Plant Doctors

Like the physicians who heal, diagnose and maintain the complicated functions of the human body, ethanol plant maintenance and management personnel are charged with keeping plant operations free from ailments and breakdowns—and production levels at full capacity. Armed with cutting edge technologies, prevention rather than reaction was the credo of presenters at the 2006 FEW.
By Nicholas Zeman | August 01, 2006
As more existing U.S. ethanol plants continue to expand and age, there has never been a time in the ethanol industry when maintenance was more important. For producers, however, that means launching a solid preventative and/or predictive maintenance program that can be fairly capital intensive—$70,000 in software alone, for instance.

And that's just the start. "[A spare parts and equipment] inventory base should start at around $500,000 and increase … to around $720,000 [with an expansion]," said Bob Crockett, maintenance manager of Platte Valley Fuel Ethanol, a 50 MMgy plant in Central City, Neb.

Crockett was one of several presenters who participated in separate but correlated sessions at the 2006 FEW that specifically hit on plant maintenance. "Plant Management" and "Shop Talk III: Maintenance Matters," both taking place on June 22, offered valuable insight to those managing or interested in plant operations.
Despite the relatively high expense of proper plant maintenance, by making an investment in the plant's future—in terms of stocking spare parts, acquiring state-of-the-art technologies and diagnostic tools, and employing the top-notch service providers—companies will see increases in reliability and up-time results, said Edgar Seward of Big River Resources, a 40 MMgy plant in West Burlington, Iowa. Critical spares need to be on hand shortly after start-up, Seward said. "Having spares on the shelf is critical … [as is] working with vendors to consign inventory."

An informed and selective inventory of spare parts is a prime directive—some might say the prime directive—of ethanol plant maintenance and management. If a plant has to spend half a day waiting for a coupling to perform an equipment repair, this can lead to dreaded downtime and even bigger problems. "You need to know how to pick the spare parts that you will stock on the shelves," said Bill Jacobson, maintenance manager at Badger State Ethanol, a 50 MMgy dry-mill facility in Monroe, Wis.
Often, ethanol plants are fairly remote with no access to resources like a machine shop, so new plants sometimes struggle. The good news is that there are ways to ease the effects of this isolation. "As a new plant, you should look to partner with other plants in the immediate vicinity," Jacobson said. "Redundant partners are people with a lot of parts that you need that you can call as an added safety measure to prevent downtime. When the chips are down and there is a part that you need, having access to those people is critical to your success."

As opposed to a competitive relationship, plants can work together for mutual benefit. "One of the ways we survived is through partnering," Crockett said.
It was made clear repeatedly during the FEW's maintenance-related sessions that asset management is extremely important. Crockett estimated that Platte Valley Fuel Ethanol's cost of maintenance, on a per-gallon basis was less than 1 cent. "[Maintenance] has tentacles that reach out and touch everyone," Crockett said, adding that maintenance personnel are not simply equipment repair experts. "We fabricate and enhance aspects of the plant that make it more user-friendly."

Prediction and forecasting was a primary theme of the maintenance and management workshops. Being able to diagnose malfunctions before they occur is a powerful tool. It's not a matter of if it will break down, but when. "A lot of maintenance is incredibly reactive, [but] what we try to do is use technologies to identify problems." The health of machines is trended over time, but even a one-time spot check can tell you when repairs should be made—not a catastrophic failure at midnight. "We don't fight fires," Crockett said.

There is a penalty to be paid for a large log of back orders. A maintenance backlog is a representative sample of the efficiency of an ethanol plant, Jacobson explained, adding that through an emphasis on training, unforeseen problems can be handled timely and efficiently. "If you're going to keep a happy staff, you need to have advanced training [and] you need to motivate your people," Jacobson said. "They aren't satisfied with the status quo. This doesn't make them happy. Training is everything."

Like a Stethoscope
In the "Plant Management" session, Dave Reynolds, a predictive maintenance consultant for The Walling Company, discussed the application of technologies that estimate the potential failure window of specific pieces of machinery. For example, the amount of vibration—and the rate at which it occurs—determines how long a machine can tolerate the action before failure.

This intersection between management and maintenance is essential to the success of an ethanol plant. "Production folks are the key to operation and maintenance—early identification, vibration analysis, infrared technologies, ultrasound," Crockett said. "[This allows you to] identify quirks [and] schedule downtimes only for boiler inspections and expansion."

Vibration analysis compares to a doctor listening to your heart, Reynolds said. Vibrations are sometimes considered the heartbeat of a machine, in terms of diagnostic examination. The vibrations given off by the machine are signifiers of potential malfunctions. "It's the same principle as the doctor's use of a stethoscope," Reynolds said.

Vibration analysis has many applications in ethanol plant maintenance: leak detection in pressure and vacuum systems (i.e., boilers, heat exchangers, condensers, chillers, distillation columns, vacuum furnaces, specialty gas systems), bearing inspection, steam trap inspection, valve blow-by, pump cavitation, detection of corona in switch gear, compressor valve analysis, integrity of seals and gaskets in tanks, pipe systems and large walk-in boxes.

Because of these vibrations, all operating equipment and most leakage problems produce a broad range of sounds. Additional technology is now available that isolates high frequency ultrasonic components of these sounds from background noises to detect their exact location. "Understanding how machines fail is critical, [and this can be done through] prediction and monitoring based off of conditions," Reynolds said. "Then you can use data to make decisions and predict major decisions for the fiscal year."

While vibration is compared to a heartbeat, oil analysis is similar to a blood screening, Reynolds explained, saying, "If you don't do this, you will have degradation on other parts. This information is nothing more than a tool to give you another advanced warning." Regular inspection of lubrication level, color and viscosity are all part of oil analysis. The results of these tests yield information that can save maintenance dollars, avoid unnecessary repairs and help lower repair costs. Particles, moisture, soot, heat, air, glycol, fuel, detergents and process fluids are all components that can potentially contaminate industrial lubricants and hydraulic fluids. Particle contamination is recognized as an extremely problematic issue for ethanol plant equipment.

Another factor in predictive maintenance is proper balancing of equipment. By correcting the balancing in a piece of equipment, the load on the support bearings and the electrical consumption is reduced, Reynolds said. When imbalance is corrected, electrical energy usage, heat in the bearings and belt slippage all are reduced.

Despite state-of-the-art technologies, some old and obvious methods are still valuable, such as documenting abnormal conditions from visual inspections with the use of a digital camera. Few of these technologies require mechanical expertise, Reynolds said.

An ethanol facility is changing everyday, and every gasket, seal, pump and motor needs to be documented and tracked when a repair, replacement or refitting takes place. "The manpower to enter [this] information into a database is a huge task … a huge commitment," Jacobson said.

Nevertheless, this data provides historical information, such as lifecycles for certain gears or parts that allow maintenance management to predict when a repair or replacement will take place. "As you start building histories and you move into predictive maintenance, don't wait for a vibration analysis," Jacobson advises. "Go into checking bearing temps, motor temps [and] couplings everyday. A gear box doesn't just self-destruct … not if you catch an oil leak."

The key in preventative maintenance is to think several steps ahead, like a good chess player who calculates the necessary maneuvers that will lead to success far in advance. "It's a real good sign when your guys are looking for something to do," Jacobson said. "We're not running around like chickens with our heads cut off, and this allows us to enjoy what we do."

‘Integration Innovation'
As maintenance histories are built, systems need to be in place for managing and tracking the information that has been documented. As Jacobson suggested, this can be tedious work—so cumbersome, in fact, that there is an entire market for managerial consultation services.

As CEO of Encore Business Solutions in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Brent Twist leads a team of software developers, business consultants and support technicians who consult and assist operating companies in determining the best management practices through cutting-edge software applications, training and continued support. Formerly a vice president within the Grain Group at the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, Canada's largest agri-business with $4.5 billion in annual revenue, Twist guided the design, development and implementation of information systems across the company's international grain and farm input operations.

"Integration innovation" was the phrase Josie Lemoine, also of Encore, used to describe empowering facilities to perform multiple functions from a single platform through the use of information technology. Helping customers attain superior return on their business technology investments is the primary focus of Encore, which bases its consultation services on the Microsoft Dynamics GP (formerly Microsoft Business Solutions/Great Plains) software platform. This software technology provides solutions for managing and integrating various sectors of ethanol production: feedstock procurement, manufacturing, accounting, public relations and human resources.
Software platforms provide detailed financial management options that range from general ledger, accounts payable, and accounts receivable modules to bank reporting and cash-flow management. The days of keeping notes and ledgers in a black book are over, Lemoine said.

Information technology allow people from across an organization—as well as business partners—to use skills they already have to adopt new processes. It is impossible to be an expert in everything, so companies need to find partners to leverage additional expertise, Lemoine explained.

For example, employees can view and share Microsoft Dynamics GP data from within Microsoft Office applications, or view budgeting, planning and reporting from a Web browser. "Often working alone, we forget about communication," Lemoine said. "Everybody is making money, but you need to continue [to strive for] efficiency."
Because all of the components are integrated, information is automatically shared across applications. This helps eliminate time wasted on redundant administrative tasks. This type of technology is in place, but it is usually an afterthought, Lemoine said. Those companies that hadn't invested in their technological infrastructure, however, grew 3 percent less than those companies that had. "IT makes a quantifiable difference in operations," Lemoine claimed.

In terms of integration, David Meyer, manager of Siemens' Fuel Ethanol Initiative, and Don Mack of Siemens' Energy and Automation division spoke of the proliferation of the use of digital bus networks during the "Plant Management" session. These are intelligent communications protocols that transmit information through an ethanol plant. Specifically, Mack and Meyer focused on Profibus, a network of products made by many different manufacturers that share a similar digital interface. Created in 1989 by a conglomerate of companies and institutions, Profibus has become a leading field-bus manufacturing and process control automation technology, Meyer said.
Profibus is unique in that it offers fully integrated systems for process applications, a major benefit in industries where upstream, mainstream and downstream processes have to work together. Industries using Profibus range from petrochemical operations and high-volume robotic manufacturing plants to food and drink, as well as water and wastewater treatment plants.

Meyer said, the use of digital bus networks saves on wiring costs and can handle all automation requirements, including continuous and batch processes. Mack said that digital bus technologies can help ethanol producers drive down production costs, improve prices and availability, and ultimately create better fuel efficiency. Its technologies range from circuit protection and energy management systems to process control, industrial software and totally integrated automation solutions.

Mack and Meyer both have engineering backgrounds and work for the energy and automation divisions of Siemens, one of the largest global electronic and engineering companies with reported worldwide sales of $96 billion in 2005. Since 2000, Siemens has supplied process automation systems on two-thirds of the fuel ethanol plants built in the United States. As of 2005, Siemens had provided process automation services and products to more than 30 plants, Meyer said. Combined, these new plants are producing more than 1.5 billion gallons of ethanol annually.

Often, business technology can become an afterthought, but it's been proven that information technology directly correlates with superior revenue, Meyer said. "Of course, the acquisition costs are higher, but there was a reduction in the price of the total project."

Digital bus networks reduce engineering time because the regulation of levels, pressures, temperatures and valves throughout the ethanol plant can be performed from a central location. "Loop-checks can be performed by one person. … This reduces labor and commissioning costs," Meyer said, adding that fewer components take up less space as well, which is often critical in many facilities.

"By leveraging digital bus architecture, much of the plant design was copy and paste, reducing engineering and installation costs," Mack said, referring to a Merck paint manufacturing facility that Siemens outfitted. Now ethanol plants can utilize these innovations to streamline and enhance the profitability of their operations. EP

Nicholas Zeman is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach him at or (701) 746-8385.