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Are You Thinking Big Enough on Refinery Turnarounds?

Tom Wilson, Global Industry Leader, Energy
August 25, 2022

Turnarounds are a necessary evil for energy companies. They’re needed for maintenance and upgrades to help ensure strong refinery operations. Yet, they also require stopping the refining process for a period of time, which can put a large dent in revenue (and generate bad press by affecting the world’s supply of oil). So it’s critically important to minimize the amount of time required to complete the turnaround process.

Unfortunately, turnarounds often run over schedule, expand in scope (and budget), and sometimes fail to deliver on key strategic goals. Digital transformation can help improve the process, but it requires thinking broadly enough on the turnaround process.

Focus on the full turnaround process to transform refinery operations.

A number of reasons factor into turnaround failures like working from paper, failing to incorporate lessons from previous turnarounds, or the knowledge gap of working with contractors.

Technology can help with these issues. But attempts to improve the process will fall short if you make a common mistake—focusing exclusively on the execution phase.

Too often, the industry emphasizes software point solutions for the execution phase alone. But turnarounds are more than just maintenance and execution. Consider a six-phase model for your refinery operations:

  • Phase I: Turnaround strategy and planning
  • Phase II: Scoping
  • Phase III: Planning
  • Phase IV: Pre-shutdown collaboration and actions
  • Phase V: Execution
  • Phase VI: Post-turnaround/closure

Technology should assist at all phases of the turnaround. Planners should have access to numbers and results from previous turnarounds to properly scope the next one. Field teams should have access to instructions on performing a given task during shutdowns. Leaders should be able to capture learnings in any turnaround wrap meetings and know those lessons will truly inform future turnarounds. Instead of looking for a single solution, it’s important to build out a suite of connected solutions that can help the full end-to-end process.

Setting the stage for an end-to-end process in refinery operations.

With turnarounds occurring only once or twice a year (or even less often for cracker turnarounds), implementing a full suite of products might seem a tall order.

Low-code has made this possible.

Traditional development schedules take significantly longer to accomplish the same task. But with best-in-class low-code platforms, applications can be developed and deployed 17 times faster. They can be modified on the fly using a visual, workflow-based interface, then have their data propagate out to other systems as needed. Mobile comes out of the box with the right low-code platform. But the bottom line is this—turnarounds no longer need to be manual. Low-code’s rapid development times allow teams or consultants to build application suites that would have been impractical for a process outside of daily operations.

If you want to truly see massive improvement in your turnarounds, you need to think big with a suite of applications and connections. This requires a few steps to accomplish.

1. Integrate systems.

It all begins with integrating the existing systems within your enterprise. Any turnaround solution requires data from across refinery operations. Managers will need access to enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems during the planning and strategy phases. People on the ground will need inventory management and procurement systems to help ensure employees have the right parts and equipment available. Contractors need to be properly onboarded and offboarded. Employees need access to knowledge management systems to ensure they’re taking the proper steps. The list goes on.

Integrating systems normally requires significant time investments, making this impractical for many organizations. However, low-code platforms greatly reduce the time required by allowing quick connections whether or not the both systems have APIs. Additionally, it simplifies a lot of the additional work by creating an abstraction layer for data. Instead of spending development hours updating database structures and schemas, developers can make changes once and have the data propagated to the right systems. Additionally, this strategy allows you to use your existing software investments instead of replacing them to fully create the tools needed for a turnaround suite.

2. Standardize refinery operation processes.

Having repeatable, easy-to-follow processes helps ensure a smoother turnaround. Most of the process remains the same each time, making it ideal to standardize via workflow. Plus, with turnarounds only occurring once or twice a year on average, creating a standardized, digitized process for workers helps reduce errors or slowdowns from having to context switch between paper instructions or remember steps from previous turnarounds.

Using a low-code platform with strong workflow capabilities allows you to build out full, end-to-end applications that simplify the entire process. With workflow-based design, your team or consultants can quickly build full applications for the complete turnaround process. You can send new contractors out into the field with exact instructions on performing tasks and allow them to capture notes and photos using their mobile devices. This ensures steps get followed in the proper sequence and ensures consistent data capture and audit trails.

3. Iterate.

Most turnarounds have a post-execution review after returning to normal operations. This wrap-up includes capturing lessons learned and, hopefully, bringing these insights into the next turnaround. Unfortunately, in practice, the lessons from a given turnaround don’t always get applied to the next.

If you’ve gone through the process of building a turnaround suite, then it becomes easy to programmatically add any learnings into your turnaround applications for the next go-round. Snags on equipment or missing instructions can be addressed in the application. Workflows can be modified (if you’re using low-code) to enforce a more streamlined process.

If you want to take it to the next level, process mining can be helpful after creating your first iteration of the turnaround suites. Process mining, available in best-in-class low-code platforms, allows you to automatically note bottlenecks and slowdowns in a given process. When running this on a turnaround, you can incorporate this data into your postmortem on the turnaround and use it to inform any changes to your workflows to streamline the next shutdown.

Ensuring smoother gas and oil refinery turnarounds.

Turnarounds can be some of the costliest activities for an oil refinery as the required break in production means a similar break in income. However, they’re necessary to prevent longer-term deterioration among equipment requiring even more costly repairs. If you want to keep costs down for turnaround activity and still hit your turnaround goals, it’s important to think broadly about the entire turnaround. This means starting early with planning and strategy, and ensuring you incorporate the lessons learned from each turnaround into the next one.

It requires a suite of products, not just one. While this may seem daunting, best-in-class low-code platforms offer the leverage to build out full applications in a fraction of the time of traditional development. This makes building that suite of turnaround applications a reality.

Learn more about how low-code helps energy companies here.