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Managing a Successful Temporary Plant Shutdown and Return to Service

The temporary shutdown of a manufacturing plant for improvements in equipment and processes must be made with the utmost planning and coordination to achieve the desired aims in the most timely, safest, and cost-efficient manner.

Q2 / Spring 2013
The words “plant shutdown” — even if referring to a temporary one — can be associated with a long litany of negatives. Stopping production, no matter the duration, results in decreased revenue. The additional resources and other costs associated with the shutdown make it a very expensive endeavor. Most shutdowns are highly complex and carry inherent safety risks. And as compared to other maintenance procedures, shutdowns are more unpredictable since there are many opportunities to discover or create problems involving expensive equipment and machinery.

There is a positive side, however. Planned shutdowns are almost always undertaken because ultimately they are good for business. They lead to improvements in the performance of equipment and processes and enable product modifications. And they are an opportunity to reduce the energy, materials, safety hazards, or waste associated with manufacturing.

It’s clear that although the actual shutdown may fall on the shoulders of internal and external resources responsible for maintenance, engineering, procurement, and project management, a shutdown impacts other business functions such as finance, sales, product design, top management as well — in short, the entire company.

Let’s look at the sequence of events that occurs during a temporary shutdown and some steps your company can take to assure a good outcome.

Temporary Shutdown’s Five Phases Phase #1: Planning
In the planning phase, the facility’s internal team, the prime contractor hired for the project, and the various engineering disciplines, both internal and external, determine the scope of work to be accomplished, the pre-shutdown activities that are required, and general logistics. With this preliminary game plan in place, they define the human resources that will be required for the project.

At this point, the key players negotiate the schedule. The prime contractor will want adequate time to carry out the project without unduly taxing the resources and causing critical tasks to be rushed. The owner will advocate for condensing the schedule to minimize loss of production time. In the end, the compromise usually involves working around the clock, through weekends and holidays, to satisfy both points of view.

The planning phase can take anywhere from one to three months for all resources to be properly vetted and the scope of work defined. Here are some tips for the planning phase:
  • Shutdowns are highly susceptible to scope creep. It’s common to discover additional work that needs to be done once systems are disassembled or equipment is more accessible. To prevent these situations from spinning the budget or schedule out of control, you need to designate an ultimate decision-maker and empower that individual to make decisions on your behalf. In addition, you should communicate the deadlines for go/no-go decisions on all items that would expand the scope of work during the shutdown. Last minutes changes are one of the biggest risks to executing a successful shutdown. However, you want to balance the negative aspect of scope creep against missed opportunities for significant or critical improvements.
  • One commonly overlooked step in the planning phase is the review of lessons learned during previous shutdowns. Although best practices dictate that these are captured through a continuous improvement process and made available to the team, it’s not always the case. If no such documentation exists, the alternative is to solicit the input of individuals who had a key role in earlier shutdowns and take their knowledge and experience into account in the current plan. It is also the time to institute a continuous improvement process starting with the current shutdown.
  • The budget must allow for the unpredictable nature of shutdowns. Therefore, the contract should include a contingency of 20 percent that defines how savings will be shared between the owner and prime contractor.
Phase #2: Coordination
In this second stage, the team determines the order in which things will be done, who is responsible for what, and the detailed workflow logistics. This involves the entire shutdown team: internal staff (maintenance, engineering, facility management, and procurement), external engineers, contractors, and vendors.

It is the most critical and time-consuming of the phases. Contributing to the complexity is the need to prepare for how the equipment and systems will be both removed from and returned to service. This is significant because in many plants it is necessary to start up systems in a specific sequence in order to allow upstream systems to come online. As a simple example, in most chemical, food and beverage, and pharmaceutical shutdowns, it is critical to start up systems that supply water for injection, then those that convert water to high-pressure steam, followed by those that generate clean steam.

Furthermore, the cleaning procedures that are required in a cGMP (Current Good Manufacturing Practice) facility require certain utilities be operational in order to provide the raw materials for the cleaning processes to occur. All these steps must be orchestrated in an efficient manner in order to stay on track. Any breakdowns along the way have a domino effect that puts the schedule and budget at risk. The coordination phase usually takes a minimum of three months to be executed properly and can take upward of six months on complex shutdowns. Here’s some advice for the coordination phase:
  • Be diligent about communicating to all groups. Shutdowns are the ultimate team sport in which winning is a coordinated effort. As such, continuous, clear communication among the team members is absolutely necessary. Keep in mind that some internal staff may be novices when it comes to shut down procedures and protocols. They will need detailed instruction and oversight prior to and during the project.
  • Complex shutdowns require the cooperation of rank-and-file employee groups. They need to know if their normal routines, like access to certain areas inside or outside of the building, will be compromised. Making employees aware of the reason for the shutdown, its duration, and the benefits to the company will ease any concerns they might have. You and your contractors should use the established communication channels to routinely inform employees and distribute project information.
  • The shutdown may be an opportunity to piggyback scheduled maintenance or other projects that are difficult or impossible to execute when the systems are operational. Unless these are planned into the coordination activities, they can jeopardize the agreed upon budget and schedule. The project manager needs to confirm if the facility has any intention to run non-shutdown related projects during the execution phase.
Phase #3: Procurement
In addition to the procurement of equipment and materials, this phase includes the bidding or negotiation of contracts with all necessary consultants, contractors, and vendors. This involves your key decisions-makers, engineering, project management, facilities, and the procurement or purchasing department. This phase can take anywhere from two weeks to three months depending on the availability of resources to work on these tasks.

One tip for the procurement phase: When writing contracts for all consultants, contactors, and vendors, it is important to include specific language that clearly communicates and addresses the characteristics of the shutdown environment and how these will impact executing their tasks. Avoid the temptation to use boilerplate contract language — the more specific and detailed the better.

Phase #4: Execution
As the name implies, this is when the actual shutdown activities occur. All tasks are completed and new and old equipment is in place. The duration is dependent upon the scope of work and the timeline that was negotiated with the facility’s management.

In addition to all the teams actually working on the shutdown, execution potentially impacts all employees. For their own safety and the success of the project, they need to be aware of what is happening — sometimes on a day-to-day basis. The prime contractor is responsible for taking whatever precautions are necessary to provide a disciplined and safe workplace.

As a word of advice here, when shutdowns involve clean rooms or hazardous environments, it may be necessary to develop site maps and signage, updated daily, to inform employees and others of areas that are off-limits. As an extra precaution, consider using security personnel to monitor critical access points.

Phase #5 Return to Service
This is the phase when the team should be able to celebrate a series of small successes as the systems are started up and, we hope, are running smoothly. Actual facility performance is tested and qualified in order to prove that systems are installed, operating, and functioning as designed. Additionally, if environmental monitoring is required, these samples are collected and tested. Once favorable test results are received, the facility is released for use.

This phase is the “moment of truth.” You will discover how critical it was to execute each of the previous phases completely and accurately. Experience proves that if activities achieve 99 percent satisfactory completion, it is sometimes equivalent to 0 percent. Make sure all issues are completely resolved and brought to closure. No errors are insignificant, or go without consequences.

Some Overall Advice
The importance of communication applies to every phase of a shutdown. Therefore, every individual and organization needs to accept responsibility to stay informed. The prime contractor leads the effort to create an environment that encourages collaboration and open communication.

Moreover, developing a sense of teamwork and respect for one another will help everyone survive the long hours and pressure of this demanding undertaking. These shutdowns require great effort and sacrifice from all involved. If the morale of the team is high and there is a sense of camaraderie among the participants, things are more likely to get worked out and completed in an efficient manner.

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