How to ensure your new operation delivers its nameplate capacity

By Gerald Ong | October 1, 2020

It’s one thing to build a state-of-the-art facility. It’s quite another to ensure it delivers on its state-of-the-art potential. The ultimate success of your new project—whether it be a mining operation, refinery, or processing plant—requires adequate time and investment in a key stage of bringing your new facility online: operational readiness, commissioning, and ramp-up (OCR).

We’ve previously written about why OCR is important and some key considerations that will lead to a successful launch. In this article we’ll zoom in on what happens when the process goes poorly versus when it goes well, and what kind of thinking and actions contribute to each outcome.

Capital-heavy projects simply can’t afford not to invest in proper OCR. But while many operations may think they’re performing an adequate OCR process, they may still be falling short of maximizing the potential of new facilities.

What happens when OCR goes badly

Bad OCR is choppy. Important functions that should be interconnected are siloed, leading to lost time and effort that can result in a longer ramp-up period and missed opportunities for optimal productivity and revenue. Bad OCR lacks the appropriate focus on people, communication, and details.

A poor OCR approach can have massive negative knock-on effects for a business, and no area of the operation is exempt from such a cascading erosion of productivity, cost, and reputation.

When OCR goes badly, the inexperienced team on the ground is pushed to resolve start-up issues instead of performing the planned maintenance schedules. Not only does this add undue stress for onsite personnel, but issues are often not resolved correctly or satisfactorily, and can put the long-term health of equipment in jeopardy. Quick patch jobs prevail.

The resulting delays and frequent shutdowns often culminate in sub-par quality products that erode corporate reputation. All this increases the cost of an operation and can lead to a depletion of value so significant that the operation can no longer meet its business case for viability. Sometimes planned shipping deadlines are missed altogether and companies can end up having to pay for demurrage.

Going through the motions of a good OCR process might seem tedious when you’re itching to flip the "on" switch. But why waste the precious time and money that’s already been invested in your new facility by allowing lax ramp-up procedures to dictate the outcome?

What happens when OCR goes well

Good OCR is smooth. It minimizes unplanned breakdowns and equipment failures, and ensures people are prepared to respond in the event of a shutdown. It requires a meticulous focus on training to ensure people are ready to run the equipment, they have all the support functions and tools at the ready, and they know what to do in the case of failure. For example, if you have a shutdown and you don’t have the multimeter ready because you don’t know where to find it, it can take hours to get things up and running again. This kind of unplanned maintenance and downtime are two of the things that cost the most for new operations. 

The right thinking behind OCR involves many of the same preparations and types of questions as getting a flat tire: do you have a spare in your trunk? Do you have the equipment to change the tire? Do you know how to change a tire? And even before all that—and this is where I see many operations missing the mark—do you even know you have a leaking tire that’s about to rupture?

It may sound simple, but this type of proactive, omniscient thinking makes all the difference between a good and a bad ramp-up, and it often equates to millions of dollars in productivity and revenue saved.

It’s about people, not equipment

The biggest mistake I see companies make when embarking on their OCR stage is lacking the right perspective from which to structure their efforts. Too often OCR is simply treated as a checklist item that quickly loses people’s engagement.

Rather than looking at OCR as the ramp-up of a facility, I try to encourage the view that OCR is about a ramp-up of people. After all, a facility doesn’t run itself. How efficiently it performs ultimately comes down to the people running it. At the end of the day, good OCR is about much more than bringing a facility online. It’s about creating a successful, sustainable business.

When project and operations teams are comprised of a diverse set of people from very different backgrounds, attention to cultural differences and communication are key to achieving collaboration and ultimately, ramp-up success. 

To some, being one minute late is a big deal, while to others, being one hour late is not. An astute OCR approach is about getting everyone on the same page. Tangibly, this involves crucial details like carefully creating and defining concrete, binary key performance indicators so everyone knows exactly how the definition of success is measured.

Equally important are team building exercises to foster a sense of community and connectedness. We’ve all experienced the difference: when you understand and feel more connected to your colleagues, you work better together. It may sound peripheral, but these basic principles actually form the foundation of your success, and they can be easily skimmed over in major operations.

The difference is in the details

It may seem intuitive that the first pieces of a facility to come online should be the biggest, most important components. In fact, a proper ramp-up procedure needs to begin with the smallest details. This is often a challenging point to communicate to teams. We overcome this challenge by training front-line construction personnel on how to understand the operation from a systems perspective rather than just an equipment perspective. When the people who are going to be running your operation understand not just what it is they need to do but why they need to do it, problems can be solved more efficiently and effectively on the ground. This allows better mitigation of unplanned maintenance and downtime, ultimately saving huge costs.

Every single minute procedure must be detailed, checked, risk assessed, written down and mitigated against, and everyone must be trained on every detail. Onboarding people as early as possible and taking such a meticulous approach actually saves time in the long run. This is because change is inevitable in such massive operations, and when it happens, you need to be prepared to respond quickly and efficiently. End-to-end thinking is crucial to recognize the value of this kind of upfront investment in the planning stage to save money in the operation stage. All the different project teams involved at different stages of the process need to come together to start thinking like one team.

In a recent project, we frequently encountered scenarios whereby instead of running A we needed to run B or C that day. With our detailed planning and training in place we always knew exactly what it would impact, what would change down the chain, and how it would shift the scope of work overall. We have worked with thousands of action items daily with everyone from project executives to construction workers, each item requiring proactive input from multiple people to move onto the next.

When we’re working on massive projects that deal in millions of dollars of equipment and economic output, let’s not forget that they’re only as good as the individual people that run them, and the smallest details that keep them performing sustainably. These are the factors that ultimately control the distinction between success and failure.

Imagine the plant of the future—with proper OCR it’s well within reach.

Imagine a plant that runs so smoothly you hardly ever experience any downtime. Imagine a workforce so well trained they can solve problems proactively and take pride in their own success. Imagine processes so precisely calibrated you far exceed your production goals and quality specifications every single time. Imagine being the model of success in your industry for the plant of the future. This is what the proper investment in OCR can do.

OCR can yield exponential returns that quickly take you from meeting your maximum revenue targets to exceeding them.

It’s encouraging to know that such significant gains can be realized simply by focusing more time and effort on how a new operation is brought online.