TEAM M3: Networking builds strong tool belt

Almost a decade ago, ethanol industry maintenance managers started a movement, banding together to help individual plants become stronger as a whole. This article appears in the November issue of EPM.
By Holly Jessen | October 16, 2015

Homeland Energy Solutions LLC’s maintenance manager Scott Bauer tells of a time when the company desperately needed a new thermal oxidizer combustion fan. Unable to immediately find the right part through traditional suppliers, the company sent out a 6 p.m. SOS email to the members of a networking group for ethanol industry maintenance mangers. “We had a response back and we were on the road an hour later, driving to Big River Resources in Dryersville,” he says, adding that the part was back at Homeland by 11 p.m. that night.

That’s not the only time the resource has helped an ethanol plant get back up and running or helped a maintenance manager out of a tight place. TEAM M3, which stands for Today’s Ethanol Advanced Maintenance, Maintenance Managers’ Meetings, got its start nearly 10 years ago, says Thomas Boeckman, who took over as director of the group this summer.

TEAM M3 meets twice a year, with the meeting location rotating among member ethanol plants. A spring meeting is typically held in February or March and a fall meeting in August, says Boeckman, maintenance manager of Louis Dreyfus Commodities ethanol plant. It was most recently held in Loveland, Colorado.

Darrell Pedersen, past maintenance manager at Corn LP and director of TEAM M3 until July, says there are a number of ways members can reach out to each other. “With over 100 maintenance personnel in the group, there is a wealth of knowledge at everyone’s fingertips,” Pedersen says, who now works for Victory Energy. “If you have a problem, all you have to do is send an email, post a question on the Ethanol Network website or make a call to one of the members and, within minutes, you will have an answer.”

TEAM M3 has grown from modest beginnings in 2006, with around 10 members, to about 120 individual members from 90 participating North American ethanol plants and one plant in Hungary. “We’d like to have it grow even more,” says Boeckman. Although group was originally limited to ICM-Fagen facilities, it is now open to plants by any designer or builder and also expanded from just maintenance managers to including other maintenance personnel.

Support System
Though the members work at facilities that are technically competing businesses, they share an unbelievable amount of information to help each other out, Bauer says. “You can do so much more as a team than you can as an individual.”

For example, Bauer once told the group at a meeting that Homeland’s maintenance department had solved an issue with balancing a hollow-bladed fan. The fan was mounted on a cooling drum, a high-moisture area, and water would get trapped inside the fan, throwing it off balance. The solution was to drill holes in the fan blades. “There were like four or five other maintenance managers that looked around and went, ‘I wish we would have thought of that,’” he says.

Between meetings, an average of 10 to 15 emails are sent out weekly among the group. Each of those emails will bring in between 15 to 20 responses, offering help or advice. “It’s one of our biggest trouble- shooting resources that we have, I feel,” Bauer says. “It’s hard to beat experience.”

That kind of open sharing is definitely unique in industry, Boeckman says. He points out that other industries have established maintenance best practices for decades, while the ethanol industry is still relatively young, in comparison. That means many maintenance managers, including Boeckman, started the job with no previous experience in the ethanol industry. “We’re benefiting far more by sharing the information than we ever would be losing by sharing something,” he says, adding that it’s not about sharing trade secrets.

Members also use the group to sell parts, Bauer says. That includes overstocked items or parts that are no longer needed because of changes or upgrades. And, some have banded together to share the load on certain high-dollar and high-profile items. One good example of that is a gear box agitator used on fermenters and various tanks.

“They have an 18-week lead time,” he says. So, rather than an individual plant having to keep all the needed gear boxes in inventory, some group members agree to cooperate with other facilities that carry that same part, with each plant keeping one of the required gear box agitators on hand.

Then To Now
TEAM M3 got started in 2006, with the first meeting at Amaizing Energy in Denison, Iowa, which is now owned and operated by The Andersons Inc. Brian Evers, then maintenance manager at the plant, now working at E Energy Adams, organized the first meeting with the help of a few others, Petersen says. It was something that was definitely needed. “There were a lot of ethanol plants being built and the maintenance people that were being hired didn’t really have any experience in the ethanol industry,” he says. “We got all of our ‘plant training’ from various vendors that supplied equipment for our plants but nobody really knew what to expect in the way of problems.”

The meetings swiftly attracted more maintenance members, including Petersen, who heard about it after the first meeting. Attendance about doubled at the second meeting, with about eight to 10 vendors on hand at Little Sioux Corn Processors LP, displaying products and talking to maintenance managers, Petersen says. The third meeting, held at Granite Falls Energy LLC, was the first big TEAM M3 event, bringing in about 35 maintenance personnel and 40 plus vendors. “After the Granite Falls event TEAM M3 just got bigger and bigger with more maintenance personnel and vendors wanting to attend,” he says.

Plant managers started to take notice, and even started attending the meetings, asking to join up. The maintenance managers ultimately decided they wanted to keep the group exclusive to maintenance personnel. That was a good call, says Kevin Howes, plant manager at Homeland, as the plant managers ended up forming their own group, with the first meeting in 2010. “They kind of blazed the trail—set the path—and we were able to follow.” He adds that vendors are invited to meetings to help share costs. “It’s the discussions behind the closed doors, that’s where the rubber meets the road,” he says.

Travis Strickland, plant manager of Blue Flint Ethanol, said the first plant managers’ group meeting had about 35 attendees. Now the group has grown to 160 mostly plant managers and production managers from 95 ethanol plants. Being a part of the group offers great networking opportunities. Questions are asked about anything from process-related issues to staffing and training. “I have sent out my fair share of SOS emails and the level of support that I have received from this group has been tremendous,” he says.

Unfortunately, not all ethanol production companies see how valuable it is to participate. None of the Poet LLC, Flint Hills or Valero ethanol plants participate, Boeckman says. That means that when a plant is purchased by Flint Hills or Valero, they suddenly leave the group. “That I see as a big negative for the industry,” he says.

Like TEAM M3, the hope is that the plant managers’ group will continue to grow. However, Strickland says, it is important that new members contribute to the value of the group. “We wouldn’t want to expand our group with individuals who aren’t willing to share information from time to time and chime in on topics of conversation and are only in it to receive information that may be beneficial to them,” he says. “We try to make sure that everyone knows that there is somewhat of an obligation to participate if you want to be a member of the group.”

The maintenance managers’ and the plant managers’ groups both utilize the same ethanol networking website. Recently, another group was started for environmental, health and safety, which has about 50 members so far. In all, there are more than 300 members registered on the ethanol networking site, as part of those three groups. Additionally, the website is all set up and ready to go for a lab managers’ group, although that idea hasn’t become a reality yet. “You really need somebody that takes the ball and runs with it,” says Boeckman. “So we need a lab manager that wants to reach out and contact all the other lab managers and use their contacts in the industry to help facilitate that.” He adds that any ethanol plant lab manager should contact him for more information.
Author: Holly Jessen
Managing Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine