How Digital Can Overcome 4 Major Turnaround Challenges

Turnarounds are massive, complex events critical to a company’s success.  Any inefficiencies or roadblocks that arise can have far-reaching effects on safety, environmental and economic performance.


While each company may plan and execute its shutdowns, turnarounds, and outages (STOs) a little differently, there are common challenges that can be addressed through intelligent, focused digitization solutions.


General Turnaround of the Petromidia Refinery Finalized
Photo Credit: Energy Industry Review

So, what are the common challenges encountered during STOs?

Inaccessible, Siloed, & Insufficient Asset Data – During STOs, engineers, operators, and turnaround teams benefit from rich equipment data to identify scope, create work package documents, and execute work. However, too often this information exists scattered across different silos.

Let’s take scope selection as an example.

While each team may have a piece of the puzzle, limited accessibility and burdensome collection processes prevent teams from getting the larger picture. Overcoming these barriers can depend on a team’s resilience and willingness to dive into the databases and manually collate the information. At best, teams work together, dig into their databases, and share information not readily accessible to others (despite how time-consuming and inefficient it can be). At worst, teams are never able to gather holistic equipment data, affecting scope selection quality.

Completeness of this equipment data isn’t necessarily a given, either. Incomplete asset management infrastructure may mean that some equipment data, especially auxiliary equipment, may not be available. Operations teams use their experience to fill in the gaps and identify equipment scope, but pushback becomes harder to conquer when the scope is challenged.

This all results in worthwhile, justifiable scope missed due to lack of data.

Inexperienced Resources and Insufficient Knowledge Retention – Another frequent challenge is the lack of experience and retained knowledge for those supporting a given area, the equipment, and the scope during a turnaround. Given the length of standard turnaround cycles, this becomes a standard challenge across industrial manufacturing settings.

For instance, a process engineer typically rotates assignments every 18 to 24 months. With a standard 5-year cycle, the process engineer supporting scope selection and the process engineer supporting STO execution will likely be different people. These role rotations occur within other STO support groups compounded by the influx of contractors who are mostly unfamiliar with a plant – placing large amounts of stress on knowledge retention & documentation processes.

Poor documentation of scope, justification, and asset information cascades throughout the life of an STO affecting an engineer’s ability to advocate for scope during any scope optimization processes, their ability to support preparation activities, and (dangerously) their execution duties such as equipment isolation, shutdown, startup, and inspection.

Weaknesses in onboarding, documentation, and knowledge management systems/processes create risk throughout the life of a turnaround.

Manual, Periodic Updates to Job Status – During this critical, frenzy of activity at the plant, it remains difficult to get a clear sense of how work is progressing.

One tactic used to track STO progress is job status updates. Today, job status updates take a few hours to collect and collate leaving end-of-shift job completion status to only estimates. Beyond the cumbersome nature of these activities, completion estimations sometimes create disparities between actual job status and the plan, which confuses the next shift and impacts turnaround metrics. 

Photo Credit: TIW Steel Platework Inc.

Better processes & tools for real-time schedules support better resource assignment and allocation during the shift. For example, process engineers might rely solely on a maintenance coordinator to notify them when and where they are needed at a moment's notice. While some of this is unavoidable, improved execution tracking could allow the entire, extended turnaround team to add value in other areas and reduce delays in the overall STO schedule.

These manual, periodic job status updates are time-intensive, lack real-time granularity, and prevent teams from increasing their productivity and performance through analytics.

Bringing Data to the Field – As useful as various forms of data and documentation are in supporting STO execution, data does not travel well into the field.

From a purely informational standpoint, equipment, status, and execution detail moves haphazardly through the plant and is often condensed or incomplete.

From a purely physical standpoint, some working processes couple with paper forms that are extremely difficult to use within the facility (e.g., QA/QC forms). They are easily damaged or marred by natural elements such as wind, sweat, and rain, or even plant elements such as dust and dirt. Furthermore, accessing and interacting with different forms of data & information while covered in personal protective equipment (PPE) isn't ideal either.

While some are making progress in this area, improving the “last-mile delivery” of information in the plant can become an asset for engineers and operators alike.  

How Might “Digitalization” Manage These Challenges?

None of these challenges are insurmountable by today’s standards. They require time, attention, and clever investment into new digital technologies. In our minds, bringing “digital” into industrial settings can manage these challenges in three ways.

First, industrial plants need a data backbone. Intelligent asset digitalization can serve as that backbone - a digital foundation for collecting, linking, and delivering meaningful access to data about your assets. This foundation supports improved STO scope evaluation, preparation, inspection, and more.

With this foundation at the center, a centralized, digital STO platform enables accessible and transparent data to flow from organizational decision-makers to supporting contractors and everywhere in between, improving overall coordination and organizational knowledge retention. This platform should serve to streamline the end-to-end STO lifecycle, including fully detailed justification, evaluation, submission, digital approvals, and notifications of real-time work status.

Wix: Engineer on Tablet

Finally, this data must be able to travel to meet engineers, operators, and support staff where they are – in a multitude of work processes, especially in the field. In a world where holistic STO equipment data flows freely to plant personnel, work processes are fulfilled directly in the field with all reference material on hand and no loss of time or detail.

Disparate data and work processes are at the core of common turnaround roadblocks and inefficiencies. Focused digitalization efforts with these specific challenges and solutions in mind will not only improve turnaround performance but improve long-term company performance and foster a competitive advantage for years to come.