Engineer at Refinery

An insight into the role of a Vibration Analyst in a demanding chemical plant

Chevron Phillips Chemical Company was founded when Chevron Corporation and Phillips Petroleum Company, now Phillips 66, combined their worldwide petrochemical businesses on July 1st, 2000. The company, which has 33 production facilities located in the US, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Belgium, produces olefins and polyolefins and is a leading supplier of aromatics, alpha olefins, styrenics, specialty chemicals, piping and proprietary plastics.
 
Richard Bierman graduated from high school in 1994 and thereafter held a variety of jobs, including owning his own irrigation installation company. Longing for a more stable income, he decided to return to college 5 years later to become a Computer Programmer. However, Richard soon discovered that even with an education in computer science, income and benefits were much greater working for a chemical plant or refinery. Therefore, he sought out a career in that industry and was hired as a Contract Millwright at a chemical plant called Agrifos. Working in this position, Richard quickly learned about rotating equipment maintenance and repair through on-the-job training and countless certification courses paid for by the company. Following this, Agrifos decided to implement a vibration analysis program and Richard was selected to lead the project. “Not knowing anything at the time about vibration analysis, the company paid for me to go to school and earn a qualification in that area. I spent 3 years at Agrifos setting up the vibration program, collecting data and working on the machinery I was monitoring,” he says. Following this, Richard spent 9 years working at Air Products where he was able to truly comprehend how certain conditions change vibration data.

It’s also evident that Richard believes in educationally furthering himself as he currently holds a Category 3 Vibration Analyst Certificate from both the Mobius Institute and from Technical Associates; a Category 2 Machinery Lubricant Analysis from the ICML (International Conference on Machine Learning); he is a NCCER (National Center for Construction Education & Research) Certified Millwright; and is also a NCCCO (National Commission for the Certification of Crane Operators) Certified Crane Operator. “I also have taken dozens of subject specific training specialist courses for each craft as is common in the industrial field,” he states. “On average, I attend at least two 1 2 week long training courses every year to continue and maintain my education.”

Failure prevention

Richard currently works as the vibration and lubrication SME (Subject Matter Expert) for the Sweeny facility in Texas, USA and often supports other sites when needed. His main responsibilities involve managing the vibration program by setting up the parameters for monitoring rotating equipment, analyzing the data that is collected, reporting deviations and recommending corrective actions when needed to increase the reliability of the machinery. Also, he is responsible for determining which fluids should lubricate each machine in order to optimize system performance. “I start a typical day by reviewing the vibration signatures against a trend of collected data to find abnormalities. Once discovered, I analyze the data to determine exactly what is wrong with the machine, how to fix it, when it needs to be addressed, what caused the issue and how to avoid the fault from reoccurring,” he explains. “I then work with the other departments to determine the most practical approach to make repairs depending on production, maintenance and scheduling.” Richard states that one of the main benefits of a properly set up vibration program is that the leading indicators to a failure can be detected well in advance. With this information, often turns can be made to prevent a failure from ever occurring. Being a part of the reliability department, Richard works closely with the group to find ways to improve the reliability and availability of their assets. He explains: “We have also used vibration analysis in the fixed equipment set to determine the likelihood of fatigue inducing vibration in small bore piping. This is a very common and severe safety hazard in hydrocarbon service. By collecting vibration data with an accelerometer from in service piping, we can easily determine which piping systems need added support or redesign to mitigate these risks.”

Joys of the job

Despite the positive aspects of being involved in preventative maintenance, the role of a Vibration Analyst comes with immense responsibility. The greatest challenge Richard faces at work, albeit he admits is also the most enjoyable and interesting aspect, involves critical decision making. Making the decision to shut down a machine can cost certain facilities millions of dollars in lost production. Deciding to continue to run something that may fail could also create a safety or environmental hazard. “Many analysts veer on the side of caution and recommend shutting a machine down at the first indication of an issue. This costs the company downtime and if the call wasn’t accurate, tarnishes the credibility of the analyst,” says Richard. Using trend-based narrowband envelope alarms, he quickly obtains the earliest possible indication of any abnormal condition. This gives him time to gather enough data to accurately determine exactly what’s wrong with the machine, and analyze its condition to determine when certain actions should be taken. All major decisions are supported by irrefutable data that is thoroughly communicated. Hence, it is rarely ever contested and everyone knows what to expect when a machine fails. This greatly reduces downtime and saves some of those millions. “It is a gratifying feeling to be able to save the company money, and to know that you are making the place safer by reducing the likelihood of a failure that could lead to an injury or loss of containment,” he explains.

Significance of the seal

Unsurprisingly, Richard has worked with many different types of pumps, including centrifugal, positive
displacement, multistage, submersible, pneumatic, laminar flow, expanders and more. He states that the most commonly used pumps, in his experience, are overhung centrifugal pumps. He explains that each centrifugal pump has its own specific type, design, material, size, speed, configuration, etc., depending on the application. When a new pump is installed, Richard ensures that any routine maintenance task and any predictive monitoring task is set up for the new machine and incorporated into the workflow process. “The most common issue that I have seen across the industry is seal failure. The mechanical seal will usually fail before a bearing or any other component. Seals can fail for many reasons, such as material selection, contaminates in the process, cavitation, excessive pressure or temperatures, etc. However, the most common failure I’ve seen is a simple leak which is usually initiated by vibration. Most of the overhung pumps used today were originally designed for packing, and mechanical seals were designed to seal the stuffing box. The most reliable pumps are those that were designed with the mechanical seal in mind,” says Richard. He expands by explaining that reliable pumps can be easily identified by the shortened distance between the outboard bearing and wet end of the pump. Pumps with a longer distance create greater displacement at the seal area, meaning even the smallest vibrations are amplified at the seal which will cause them to leak. Even low amplitude vibration from misalignment, minor bearing faults, contamination in the oil or imbalance can cause the seal faces to separate momentarily, allowing the process to get in between them, damaging the surfaces and causing a leak. “The other most common cause of pump failures is due to poor lubrication practices,” he says. “Since contaminated lubrication is also a contributing factor to seal failures, it is likely the number one cause of pump failures in general. Fortunately, lubrication practices are also the easiest things to correct and have the greatest effect on increasing the MTBR (mean time between repairs) for rotating equipment.”Currently, Richard is involved in the analysis of data for fatigue inducing vibration in small bore piping. On many occasions he is involved in several projects at the same time. Aside from the routine vibration and oil analysis, he often works on monitoring system upgrades, lube oil specifications for multiple sites, oil storage contamination and control, metric reporting for PdM (Predictive Maintenance) and pump swaps, troubleshooting mechanical issues, RCA (Root Cause Analysis) studies, planning of certain tasks during turnarounds and more. “Continuous improvement is exactly that: continuous. Detecting faults early enough using a trend-based narrowband envelope alarming method for vibration analysis allows for flexibility in my schedule. Knowing what’s going to happen, well before it does, allows everyone to plan accordingly and work
proactively instead of reactively,” he states.

Internal Gear Pump
Internal Gear Pump
A word of advice

Richard is of a strong belief that even entry level positions in the industry pay well and have excellent benefits compared to the commercial market or even the medical field. The other noticeable difference is that a new employee does not stay new for long in the industry. He believes there is a lot of room for promotion and the opinions of new people are valued just as they should be. “I personally struggled to find a good job after graduating. However, once I got into the industrial market, I’ve acquired every job I’ve applied for and have been constantly employed for the last 16 years,” he says. In addition, Richard thinks the industry generally does an amazing job at educating new and junior engineers. He states that very few non-industrial businesses pay to train their employees and pay their employees while being trained. “The best education comes from actual work experience. I would encourage any junior engineer to absorb as much knowledge as they can from the team members with long-term experience. I’d encourage anyone to listen to these people and expand on that knowledge, but also to not fall into the furrow of doing something a certain way because it has always been done that way,” he explains. Much of what Richard has learned, he explains, has been from networking with other professionals. The industry is rapidly changing, especially with the IoT (Internet of Things) which has been referred to as the ‘2nd Industrial Revolution’. Technical stagnation and knowledge deprivation is not only a career killer, but can also bring down entire companies. “It is important to stay current on what’s going on around us. Conferences, such as Pump Summit Americas being held in 2018, are a great place to meet other specialists in your specific field and to find out what other companies are doing, what’s working for them and what’s not,” he says. “Sharing certain non-proprietary experiences further advances the industry and also benefits support teams like vendors and equipment manufactures to improve the progression of everyone.”
 

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