The Hand That Turns the Wrench

Ethanol plant technicians who are able to avoid unexpected shutdowns are like money in the bank. Instructors at the Biofuels Automation University in Plymouth, Minn., believe that with highly trained technicians and the technology available today, there should be no unscheduled downtime in an ethanol facility.
By Timothy Charles Holmseth / Photos By Howard Pfefer | July 08, 2008
The expression it's not in the tool that the magic lies, the magic is in the man who knows which screw to turn, is not included in the Performance Plus Ethanol Maintenance Training literature at the BioFuels Automation University in Plymouth, Minn.

But it should be.

The ethanol plant maintenance technicians who attend the university come away with knowledge that sharpens their skills in ways that can make a difference to their company's
bottom line.

Hans Alwin, director of business development for Biofuels Automation, says that in an industry, where maintenance is a profit center, the closer a technician gets to being a crystal ball into plant problems, the more money that facility makes. "There should be no unscheduled downtime in an ethanol facility." Alwin says, sizing up the ultimate goal of the training program that is now in its second year. With the technology available today there is no reason for downtime, says Sidney Sondag, Biofuels Automation general manager. "If that piece of equipment works when it's installed, it's going to keep working," he says, noting that most parts are good for years. Too much time is spent trying to throw different devices at the problem to see if it fixes it, he adds. Students who go through the course receive a fuller understanding of how to assess automation issues that may be problematic, he explains. When they leave they have a brand new foundation to build upon.

The allure of this industry-specific training that keeps the registration constant at $1,000 per technician is money, Alwin says. The enrollment fee is inexpensive compared with what a company gains (or stands to lose) as result of utilizing (or not utilizing) the course. If enrollment, turnout and repeat attendance are indicators, it would appear that Alwin is correct. "The session is full," he says, looking into the training room where 19 men sit attentively following a power-point presentation. "We booked 20, one fellow couldn't make it," he says.

For Jon Logterman, the maintenance manager for Western Wisconsin Energy LLC, the June 5-6 session is his second time around. "We've been sending two [technicians] for every session," he says during a quick break between sessions. "We're starting to repeat because you pick up something new every time." Technicians who attend the university sometimes find solutions to problems they're experiencing back at their ethanol plants. "I've got a page of notes in my notebook as [our plant] has been having some issues," Logterman explains. "Then all of a sudden it's like the light bulb goes off when you're in class here, and you think, Hey that might be our problem.' so you take that information back to the plant."

Using the training method of classroom power-point lectures followed by immediate hands-on training at the direction of Biofuels Automation University specialists, the technicians are systematically introduced to or updated on everything from temperature measurements to valves to communication protocols.

Standing over a cylinder during a break-out session, Logterman is joined by Todd Selk, a maintenance technician from United Wisconsin Grain Producers LLC in Friesland, Wis., Jeff Coots, a maintenance technician at Castle Rock Renewable Fuels LLC in Necedah, Wis., and Aaron Goodell, from production resources at Corn LP in Goldfield, Iowa. "We're setting up transmitters to read levels in a cylinder," Matt Derosier, a BioFuels Automation service technician, says as the student technicians observe. As the technicians begin to discuss and troubleshoot the task, their training takes hold. "Okay, we got our signal back," Coots says, after a temporary loss of a reading on the monitor. "Calibrate," Goodell, says. "Beautiful, she just zeroed out," Coots says as the men nod their heads in agreement.

Jeff Milani, BioFuels Automation's lead service technician, shows the students what happens when a little bit of pressure changes because of gases that can exist above the liquid. "You can cancel it out if you happen to make a mistake," he says after showing them the difference it makes.

Alwin says communications among the technicians is a plus because they have the opportunity to exchange information with their peers. Logterman says he has compared notes with some technicians from United Wisconsin Grain Producers LLC. "They were [on line] before us, but we exchange information because they've seen problems come up [due to] the age of their plant. We were built a year later so we share information," he explains.

The significance of fresh information cannot be overstated, Logterman says. "Yesterday they brought out a new [transmitter isolation valve]," he says, adding that it can be applied to the process in certain applications at his plant where operational issues sometimes arise. "Up to this point that technology wasn't in the industry, so you basically had to shut down to change out the Level Instruments," he explains. "[With this] we can change those out on the fly."

While the program is designed to educate students through audio, visual and hands-on learning techniques, Sondag also throws in some real world analogies that the average person will remember. For example, he explains the Coriolis effect to the class in this fashion: "Have you ever driven past the highly sophisticated fake Holstein cow in the yard with its tail made of a hose doing this (whipping his hand around)?" he asks. "That's the Coriolis effect actually causing that tail to whip."

Moving through the lesson plans, Sondag and Alwin use daily experiences to provide insight into complicated but important dynamic fluid properties that relate to ethanol process experiences. "If you take a cup of sour cream and tip it upside down it will never come outit'll just sit there," Sondag says, explaining the essence of non-Newtonian liquids. "But if you stir it up, it will pour out easily." The ability to deliver the latest insights and education didn't happen overnight. Alwin credits the university's success to the market penetration of its parent company Swanson Flo-Systems Co. Swanson Flo-Systems is an equipment provider handling a comprehensive package of instrumentation, automated and manual valves and specialty components to measure and control temperature, pressure, flow, level, proof, density, pH, percent solids, percent causticity and other analytical variables found in ethanol production. Understanding the applications and providing this broad scope of products indelibly connects the Swanson Flo-Systems and BioFuels Automation companies to these technicians for the life of the plant. "Most of our brands are major market share leaders," Alwin says pointing out that, "Foxboro Instrumentation, Masoneilan Control Valves and Flowseal butterfly valves each enjoy over 75 percent market share in the dry-grind ethanol industry. So the training can be pertinent and valuable."

Doug Diny, who's involved with project sales activities for Biofuels Automation, says the full classrooms make sense when you look at the present state of the ethanol industry, which is being plagued by record-high corn prices. "Plant builders today must be more resourceful," he says. "We can work the downturn to our advantage."

Future sessions are scheduled and Logterman says his company will most likely be sending technicians to that those training sessions. "There's always something new," he says.

Alwin agrees, adding that BioFuels Automation University responds to the changing needs of its clients. "In addition to the quarterly Performance Plus Ethanol Maintenance Training Course, which runs next on Sept. 11-12 and again on Dec. 4-5, several new courses will be added to the curriculum offerings. The new courses will include maintenance sessions covering heat exchangers and pumps, an ethanol operations module, an emissions compliance and safety management course and a module covering advanced control loop tuning."

Timothy Charles Holmseth is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach him at or (701) 738-4962.