Political Dilemma in the Plant

by | Dec 1, 2022 | Asset Management, Reliability

Chow Yang Neo

Chow Yang Neo

Sr. Director, Marketing & Planning

Anchovy Rice, Banana Flower Salad, and the Instrument Technician

You would think that for an industry as technical and geeky as Process Instrumentation and Condition-Based Monitoring, workplace politics would not be nonexistent right? Well, you would be wrong. In my age of innocence as a younger marketing guy, I learned some interesting lessons in a refinery that is not too far away.

I knew we had the best solution in the world – a market-leading instrument asset management software coupled with our latest and greatest win-based, full-colored portable instrument calibrator. I committed all the value propositions to memory. I was ready with all the Solution Selling techniques of moving from pain to vision. I practiced the demo steps in my mind along the bumpy road to the refinery. Did I get the deal? Nope!

The maintenance leader NK with whom I had a fruitful meeting just five weeks back, was now looking unresponsive and even awkward. The older instrument technician was still wearing the same stoic, serious look. The rest of the instrument team who was supposed to join this final demo were not there – no one turned up at all.

“Well – we went through how your technicians could interrogate the flowmeter in the AMS software before you go to the field – so that you will know the right tools to bring.”

Silence…No nodding of head….

“And if you remember our last demo, you can significantly reduce the level of scheduled operator rounds. For most of those under Group C, you can rely on AMS to alert you – you need not inspect them in the field so frequently.”

NK frowned and looked elsewhere…

“And if the need arises, the new TREX calibrator will be like having the AMS software with you right there in the field next to the instrument. No coordination needed with maintenance lab via walkie-talkie.”

No interest? Hmm… this is not looking good, I remembered saying to myself.

KS, my local sales colleague was of course going crazy inside but managed to contain himself. The senior technician brought me to the plant cafeteria for steamed anchovy rice and banana flower salad, while KS had a heart-to-heart talk with NK, the maintenance leader.

It seemed like we almost triggered an industrial action incident. Someone has threatened of informing the union. KS obviously was not aware and was a bit complacent with this account.

Some technicians felt threatened by our proposed solution. They were unhappy with the proposed changes to the work processes. There would be a reduced need for trips to the field. They did not want the responsibility of interrogating the instrument themselves – they liked to be guided by the guy via the walkie-talkie.

Engineer calibrating with AMS TREX Device Communicator in the field.

They were not bothered that the solution would make their work safer with fewer trips to the field. Not bothered to upskill by learning about the new AMS TREX calibrator. Not bothered about the assurance from the Operations Manager there was no plan to restructure or repurpose anyone.

“Discuss any further and someone would call the union.” NK nearly lost his job.

All we got was the anchovy rice and banana flower salad – quite tasty as I recalled.

Fast forward eight years to 2018. Although I was really excited about the new AMS Wireless Vibration Monitor, we were launching to the market; I was more apprehensive when AJ called about the interest from the same refinery that served anchovy rice with banana flower salad.

The technology behind AMS Wireless Vibration Monitor is of course different from the AMS TREX package. This is about predictive diagnostics of rotating assets. Just stick a few of these AMS Wireless Vibration Monitor units at the right parts of the pump exterior and voila – you will know in advance of early signs of impending bearing degradation, loose mounting, and lubrication issues…

But if you move up along the chart of Solution Selling pain chain – the fundamental business value propositions are very similar – Change the way you run your plant and manage maintenance activities. It will mean a safer plant with fewer trips to the field to inspect and extract data from your rotating asset with portable vibration analyzers.

AJ eventually managed to persuade me to take a trip to the same refinery. NK is now the Deputy Operations Manager, yes, he seemed to have survived and progressed. He did not recognize me although I could clearly remember the slimmer him from 8 years back.

The focus of my message was on the value of predictive diagnostics and the easy, low-cost installation of WirelessHART sensors. I was extremely careful when I presented the part about fewer trips to the field – flew through that slide in 8 seconds.

Three weeks after the customer visit, I was surprised when AJ thanked me for my support. The customer bought 23 units of the AMS Wireless Vibration Monitor and 6 units of the AMS Asset Monitors. Were they not concerned about the work process changes? I asked carefully.

Well, one of their only two machinery health experts (aka: “vibration uncles”) retired last year. The other one got poached to the new petrochemical complex up north. They had to outsource most of the maintenance work surrounding the protection and prediction systems of 5-6 critical turbines and large compressors with impacted the budget.

As for the remaining 146 pumps, fans, and compressors they were previously manually inspecting – the only remaining machinery health expert was not able to keep up. Apparently, he dared not to take any risk and was requesting too many stoppages.

I am of course happy with the AMS Wireless Vibration Monitor win, but I am not sharing this victory report with any glee or nose-thumping at anyone – not NK, not the senior instrument technician, not even those who had wanted to call the union.

Refineries are huge, sprawling industrial complexes with extensive piping, tower, and processing units connected by the clever minds and deep experience of thousands of engineers of every discipline – chemical, electrical, mechanical, combustion, and indeed instrumentation.

It is challenging to keep a refinery going; makes it even more difficult when fewer young people are keen to work in these unglamorous industries. I am happy to know that maybe in some small ways our solutions have helped to keep the refinery going.

Most technology adoption exercises, it is about the people who are going to use the technology. How we are impacting their lives matters the most at the end of the day.

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The opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the authors. Content published here is not read or approved by Emerson before it is posted and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Emerson.