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Construction vs. Production: Tips for Constructing Capital Projects Within an Operating Plant

To deliver a successful capital project inside an operating plant, all of the project stakeholders — the owner, architect/engineer, equipment supplier, and constructor — must plan ahead to minimize production disruption.

Q4 2021
Phase of a Project - Construction Planning and Execution
Phase of a Project - Construction Planning and Execution
Capital projects come in all types and sizes. When a manufacturing company is looking to add new capacity to an existing production plant, there are many factors — and risks — that must be considered. It only takes one unplanned outage to negate much of the value of the capital improvement plan. Having a plan to address the potential issues that could impact the existing production, and using some innovative ideas to work around constraints, will result in a project that has a faster time to market without negative impacts.

A Good Beginning
A capital project begins with identifying a need. Perhaps the need is for greater capacity, a new product, or improved reliability. Every project needs a great plan for success, and this is especially true when the project will be built in an operating plant. All of the companies I have worked with have a very well-documented, structured approach to identify projects that meet their product profile and increase or improve their production capacity, as well as identifying the equipment and capital investment needed. This is usually a collaborative effort between the manufacturer, equipment suppliers, and architect/engineer in the form of a Front-End Loading (FEL) Study. The FEL Study process is illustrated in the accompanying chart. The study phase typically incorporates stages 1, 2, and 3. At the end of Stage 3, the project is well-defined — to the point that highly accurate cost estimates and schedules can be established for construction. The main purpose of the FEL process is to establish review periods — or Stage Gates — along the way to ascertain full alignment between the project status and the original business case. As each stage is completed, the project goes through a formal review to confirm alignment with the original scope, cost, and schedule.

This article focuses on the need to plan for construction from the beginning of a project, along with the provisions that must be made throughout design and construction to be able to proceed smoothly without impacting the production of products.

It only takes one unplanned outage to negate much of the value of the capital improvement plan. First Step: Get organized!
  • Designate a client team member to serve as project manager (PM). This person will be the focal point for the project throughout its life cycle and will be empowered to make decisions. While the PM still has oversight from company leaders, most everyone else sees the PM as the voice of the owner. And things run much smoother when there is one voice!
  • Decide which portions of the project work will be done in-house vs. hiring outside companies to fill a role. Some of the project-related roles to be filled include:
    • Architecture/engineering design
    • Procurement
    • Operations planning for reliability, operability, and maintainability
    • Logistics planning
    • Construction
    • Project controls
    • Commissioning
  • Select a project delivery model. There are many choices, particularly when the company decides to outsource design and construction. While hybrid delivery models abound, the most common models are design-bid-build, design-construction manage or design-build. Although there are pros and cons associated with each approach, it’s key to select a method that works best for the company for that project. Once the initial project decisions have been made, it’s time to plan the project for design and construction.
FEL-1: Planning During Concept Development Prior To Design and Major Procurement:
  • Identify where construction will take place. This seems obvious, but it’s important to clearly designate where construction will occur and to identify key interface points between construction and production.
  • Identify existing conditions:
    • Where work will take place in existing buildings, use laser scanning of the existing structures and utilities.
    • Where work will include outdoor construction, order a survey of the property and consider ground-penetrating radar to identify buried utilities.
    • While technology can do much of the work, research existing drawings and take a visual assessment of existing conditions to identify elements that may be concealed.
    • Perform a geotechnical study in areas where heavy loads will be located.
  • Identify where the construction laydown area will be located. There is usually a large space needed by the construction team to store construction materials and provide pre-assembly.
  • Identify where the contractor offices will be located.
  • Identify designated paths of movement for the construction team:
    • Outside of the plant to the laydown and construction area
    • From construction laydown to the construction area
    • Note: Ideally, the construction movement of people and materials is kept completely separate from the normal plant paths.
It’s important to clearly designate where construction will occur and to identify key interface points between construction and production. FEL-2: Planning for Construction During Schematic Design
  • A key tool for design and construction planning is 3D visualization:
    • Having a detailed model can be extremely helpful in visualizing the assignment of space for utilities, foundations/structures, equipment, and free space to help eliminate conflicts and interferences. It is also useful in making decisions for changes that may only be apparent when viewing the project virtually.
    • Oftentimes, the model will incorporate portions of the existing plant to aid in coordination with those items that are interface points to the new construction.
  • Prepare process equipment specifications to account for existing conditions:
    • Tailor equipment specifications to address the available space with all planned access points for maintenance and operation of the equipment.
    • Run process simulations to ensure process flow will be effective with the existing process equipment and material-handling equipment.
  • A key set of design and procurement decisions can save a lot of time during construction. Here are some time-savers worth trying:
    • Pre-assembly/modular construction of process equipment and process support equipment. Having equipment preassembled on skids, pre-piped and pre-wired, can save significant time during construction.
    • Modular pre-assembled units can also be installed for offices and break rooms.
    • Control rooms can be pre-assembled/pre-wired with panels, control desks, motor control centers, etc., that are already installed.
    • Hydraulic power unit skids can also be pre-piped and pre-wired.
  • There are many production issues that can impact design and therefore must be considered during design:
    • Use of existing building cranes to set new equipment — Are cranes available during shift changes, down shifts, shutdowns?
    • How much “air” (vertical clear height) is above the plant floor in the construction area?
    • Can the existing electrical system, water, hydraulics, gas lines, etc., be tapped into at certain points during a short outage?
    • If excavation is required in existing buildings, consider how to gain access to the area with an excavator and how to remove spoils. And don’t forget head clearance.
    • Will existing foundations be undermined by excavation? Investigate shoring/sheet piling plans.
    • Is penetration of existing walls and roofing required for fume exhaust, ventilation, etc.? Consider how these penetrations can be made safely and then sealed to prevent intrusion of weather.
FEL-3/4 (Prior to Construction Starting): Planning for Construction During Preliminary Design and Construction Documentation
  • Designate a production manager to act as the single point of accountability (SPA) for coordination with construction.
  • Establish daily meetings between the plant PM, the plant production SPA, the contractor/construction manager, and other stakeholders to avoid surprises and maintain smooth operations.
  • Coordinate work schedules between construction and production. Schedule construction shifts to start before production shift changes by at least one hour. This will assist with vehicle and foot traffic congestion and increase safety.
  • Identify timing and frequency of scheduled downtime in the construction/production area.
  • Inform people in the plant about “what’s going on” so they get on with their work without asking, “What’s going on over there”? Communicate early and often through meetings and memos.
  • Schedule plant safety training for construction personnel in addition to OSHA/contractor-required safety training. They need to understand the safety issues in the adjacent spaces.
When the contractor mobilizes to the site, one of the first steps is to begin the segregation between areas of construction and production. FEL-5: Construction Initiation
When the contractor mobilizes to the site, one of the first steps is to begin the segregation between areas of construction and production. This includes:
  • Physical barriers for “no-cross” zones:
    • This can be in the form of temporary walls or Jersey barriers.
  • Physical barriers for temperature and environmental control:
    • At times, construction projects require the removal of building walls/sheeting or frequently-open large doors in order to provide construction access. Extreme heat, cold, and even dust impacts people, product quality, and human health. For this reason, the construction of temporary walls or curtains may be required. Curtains may be cloth or plastic, depending on the specific working conditions.
  • Temporary barriers:
    • This is for areas where there is a need to cross between construction and production areas on an infrequent basis, or where a substantial barrier is impractical. Temporary barriers include caution tape, empty plastic Jersey barriers, and cones.
    Concurrently, the contractor will establish travel paths within the area for vehicles/mobile equipment/people, with the goal of separating construction traffic from production and segregating people from mobile equipment.
  • Segregation should be in the form of hard barriers for vehicles/mobile equipment and light barriers for people (floor striping, tape, etc.)
  • Emergency egress plans, paths, and assembly points must be developed, marked, and practiced for construction workers.
  • Emergency egress plans may need to be altered for plant employees due to changes related to the construction project.
Containing construction hazards:
  • As part of the safety planning and training process, it is necessary to identify all hazards and corresponding mitigation steps to minimize their severity and potentially eliminate them.
  • For temporary or permanent connection to existing utilities, it is important to have a verified process for identification of pipes (by utility service) and conduits (by voltage) to confirm the contractor will know where to connect. Painting and/or labeling of services is a best practice.
  • For services that pass through the construction area, even those that will not be tapped, identification will help avoid inadvertent interruption of service.
Emergency egress plans may need to be altered for plant employees due to changes related to the construction project. Outage planning:
  • Production outages should be planned well in advance, with the plan being communicated broadly to both production and construction teams. Many special activities and equipment as well as labor will be brought in for an outage. Any schedule delay will cause lost motion, time, and money. If delay is unavoidable, inform everyone immediately and start replanning.
To Sum Things Up
Ultimately, an effective plan for building a construction project inside an operating plant is a team sport! The plant management, production team, design team, construction team, and equipment vendors must work cooperatively to make it all work. By utilizing the best practices discussed in this article, projects will proceed with minimal interruptions to production. As one of my colleagues once said: “Production makes money; projects cost money!” And it’s of the utmost importance to keep production up and running — and still run an efficient project.

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