Like many other businesses, cement plants increasingly have to focus on short-term returns to the stock market. At the most basic level, profitability or lack thereof can be very simply correlated with two main factors: market dynamics and operational performance. Of course, these two are by no means distinct from each other – it’s certainly possible to be doing badly in a booming market! – but we’ll leave market dynamics for another day and concentrate on what we know best: plant performance.

Diagnosing problems early
The saying goes that prevention is better than a cure, but you can’t prevent much without careful monitoring. Basic process engineering measurements should be carried out on a frequent basis to ensure that all areas of the cement plant are performing in line with expectations. While this may seem like obvious advice to a cement producer, there is significant focus on equipment inspection from the mechanical and electrical perspective; process measurements are often forgotten until the plant is running poorly. Keeping the equipment running is one thing, but keeping it running efficiently is the key to low cost production.

Check your instruments
We rely so heavily on instrumentation to measure our plant operations, but how often do you check the instruments are properly calibrated? How often do we see plants with strange back end gas analyser readings what just aren’t possible – high O2 alongside high CO and SO2? But without checking and trying to understand what is wrong, the readings become the norm and the value of having that instrument becomes zero.

The lesson? If it looks wrong, it probably is wrong. Check your instrumentation regularly.

How often do you take stock checks?
You’d be surprised how often I’ve come across cement plants that don’t regularly check their stocks. Perhaps it’s almost too obvious and that’s why it gets forgotten, but balancing raw meal to clinker and cement stocks is essential, not just to profit margins but also to indicate that something is wrong in the process.

Financial projections are based on assumed quantities – kiln throughput, fuel consumption, etc. It’s worth checking both kiln tonnage and fuel consumption through a clinker weigh-off for 24 hours. Finding that you are using more fuel, or producing less clinker than expected can have a major impact on the company’s financials. A profit warning is never a good thing, but one based on simple accounting mistakes is particularly awful – and totally avoidable. Check and double-check your figures.

Examine trends as well as data
Every modern cement plant collects reams of data, but data without analysis is pointless. Use your data to track trends and you could discover and solve problems before they occur, turn plant performance around and avoid having to write that dreaded note to shareholders.

Plant data can be overwhelming and sometimes it’s hard to see the wood for the trees. If you’re struggling to pinpoint the source of a problem, give JAMCEM a call. A fresh pair of experienced eyes can be exactly what you need to identify where plant performance is falling short and how to fix it. Take a look at our references to see how we’ve helped numerous cement plants streamline their operations and improve productivity.
While other industries may be easing into the New Year, January is a frantic time for many cement manufacturers who typically spend at least part of the month working around the clock on the annual maintenance shutdown. In the run-up to plant stoppage, we all hope for a smooth, on-time shutdown with no surprises and no delays, but sadly the reality is often an entirely different – and more expensive – experience that can leave a plant with a kind of ‘maintenance hangover’ well into the spring and beyond.

I have worked on a lot of maintenance stops, both in my time in technical centres and when working on plants and, more recently, as a consultant. For me, achieving a successful maintenance shutdown is all in the planning. Below are some questions I have come across and the answers I have learnt through (sometimes bitter!) experience.

When should you begin planning for the maintenance shutdown?

Preparing for a shutdown is not something that you can slot into the two weeks before the plant is going to stop – it’s an ongoing process that should be considered throughout the year. This process should begin as the last shutdown ends, with a close-out meeting to discuss how this year’s shutdown progressed, the learning outcomes to be gained and any actionable points that could be addressed prior to the next shutdown.

Throughout the year, shutdown jobs should be identified through both the maintenance management system and the results of regular equipment inspections. That way, when the shutdown comes around there should be no surprises, no last-minute contractor call-outs, which can be expensive, and you can be assured that nothing has been forgotten.

How long should you schedule for the shutdown?

Of course, the answer to this question depends largely on the jobs that need to be carried out during stoppage: the length of the shutdown will be at least as long as the longest job. But that’s not the only factor to take into consideration. How quickly does the plant need to be up and running from a business perspective? If sales are low and there is a lot of clinker in stock, could you save money and forego 24-hour working for a longer but significantly less expensive shutdown?

When planning the stoppage time, it is also important to factor in time for delays. If you’ve prepared properly, these should be minimal, but even so there will be things outside of your control that could set your schedule back considerably. I’ve seen delays caused by the smallest things, like not having a crane available, not having the necessary equipment in the right place, and the power being cut to one part of the plant that affects other areas of the repair.

Stopping a plant is a major undertaking and ideally something you’d only want to do once a year so it’s better to plan in the necessary time to do it right rather than rush through the jobs and risk an unplanned shutdown later in the year. Right first time!

What happens when the plant starts back up?

Planning for start-up is just as important as planning for shutdown, but it’s often not given due consideration. For example, leaving enough raw meal in the raw meal silo to start the kilns sounds obvious but when forgotten – as it often is – it can lead to a really difficult start-up and can even undo some of the good work the shutdown has just achieved.

On the topic of supplies, it’s also important that there is sufficient clinker – with a margin for error – so that the plant doesn’t run out of cement. The last thing anyone wants is to have to turn business away while a shutdown overruns.

How can we make the most of our shutdown?

A shutdown offers a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the equipment that is ordinarily off limits. Make the most of this by getting in there with your camera, taking pictures, recording measurements, inspecting refractory depths, etc. This is also a great chance for your personnel to be trained in the operation of equipment and to gain a fuller understanding of what exactly is going on inside these huge pieces of equipment that they usually only have the opportunity to know through a computer screen. Make a point of planning this in, rather than thinking of it as ‘something to do if we get the time’, as the experience gained will pay dividends in the future.

The benefits of a well thought-out maintenance stoppage are fairly obvious, but sometimes it’s hard to define the process that will get you there. If you need any help with the planning or with undertaking a plant shutdown, give JAMCEM Consulting a call. Our team of experts has hands on experience planning and managing maintenance outages in plants all over the world and we’ll be happy to help.
The short-term benefits of an O&M agreement are pretty clear. You’re starting your plant operations with a readymade team of experts, who are driven to prove their value and – if your O&M contractor is also your equipment provider – your investment in their technology. But what about the long-term? What kind of advantages and disadvantages can you expect from your O&M agreement?

Benefits of an O&M contract

- Readymade employees

Training an employee up to standard can take months if not years. The benefits of kicking off a project with employees that are “good to go” cannot be overstated. The successful operation of a plant depends on the experience of the people running it.

- No expenditure on staff training

An associated benefit of readymade employees is that you don’t have to spend either money or time training them, either now or in the future.

- The workforce is focused

Sure, all employees have targets to meet. But the expectations for employees in an O&M agreement are doubled – once from the plant owner and once from the O&M contractor. Workers have to maximise output if they’re to hold on to the contract.

- Expert resources for the wider group

The plant owner will benefit from the expertise of the O&M workforce, whose knowledge can be shared across the owner’s group. In addition, the O&M workforce has the backup of the contractor company, whose expertise can be called upon should extra assistance be needed at the plant.

The disadvantages

- Lack of in-house expertise

Trusting the running of the plant to outside contractors and not investing in a workforce of your own means you will be beholden to the O&M contractor to run the facility and, at least in part, your business. Should things go well and you decide to expand the business, you’d be looking at another O&M agreement, rather than transferring some of your own skilled employees. Knowledge within the group for making business decisions would also be limited, so you’d be relying on the contractor for their input, which might be biased.

- Limited exposure to other equipment suppliers

If your O&M contractor is an equipment supplier, in most cases you will find you have to buy all equipment from or through the O&M supplier. There will be no option to explore other suppliers, even if they are offering a more suitable technology or a better deal. You may even feel like your supplier is maximising their spare parts sales or encouraging unnecessary spending to up their orders.

- Inability to break the contract

Whilst in theory it might be possible to break the contract, the practical aspects of removing the whole workforce and starting again make it almost impossible. The business disruption would be enormous, unless the majority of the people working for the O&M contractor were re-employed by the cement producer, which somewhat defeats the object of replacing the contractor.

- Targets are short term

The payment and performance targets that are put in place for the O&M contractor are always very short term and are often focused on clinker production so plants are pushed to their limits without regard for longer term asset life, which in turn often results in higher maintenance costs in the longer term.

Plan for the future

While there may be advantages to starting plant operations with an O&M agreement in place, we would always recommend planning for the long-term by training your own staff to take over in due course. Ultimately, your plant and your business will benefit from having the skills in-house. To learn more about the training offered by JAMCEM Consulting, visit www.jamcem.com.
In a cement plant, efficient, stable operation is critical to productivity and profitability. In an ideal world, the design of the plant would be based on a comprehensive operational understanding, not just of the cement production process, but in particular the local operational and environmental issues that might affect performance. By anticipating where problems might occur, adjustments could be made in the design phase to avoid bottlenecks and minimise downtime and headaches later on.

Unfortunately, our experience shows that plants are still being designed without due consideration of these issues. Plant design tends to prioritise cost and speed, delivering a bottom line that investors are willing to sign on because they cannot foresee the costly challenges that lie ahead.

A functional cement plant, on time and on budget

That’s not to say that cost and speed aren’t important. However, of the utmost importance is producing an end product that works, both from a performance standpoint and in terms of practicality, accessibility and ease of use. Operational personnel, who have an eye for how the cement plant will actually run, can assess these things and, if brought in early enough, can help incorporate them into the plant design.

Real-world operations

Building a plant without true consideration for how it will run in the real world is a recipe for disaster. Ultimately, designing in this way will necessitate changes further down the line, costing money, curtailing production and damaging a plant’s competitive position. If an operational team is brought in at the design phase, they will give thought to operational issues such as those outlined below, which can have a real impact on a plant’s ease of operation.

· Maintenance: Due consideration should be given as to how maintenance work can be completed simply and with low manpower requirements. Access is a key issue, but one that’s often overlooked.

· Cleaning: The plant should be designed in such a way that cleaning is easy and, crucially, safe. Easy access for a mobile vacuum unit and careful thought as to how any spilled material can be returned to the process are just two issues that should be incorporated in the design phase.

· Seasonality affects: Plant design should be able to cope with changes in weather and local market conditions. Personnel with operational experience are better equipped to advise on this at the design stage.

Assist and compromise

When project and operational teams work together on plant design, everybody wins. The plant will come in on time and on budget – because the project team wouldn’t have it any other way – but it will also be functional and, ultimately, be capable of greater periods of stable, efficient operation thanks to the operational team’s experience. Undoubtedly there will be times when the two teams don’t see eye to eye, but by working together, sharing the common goal of a satisfied customer, our experience shows that a workable solution can usually be found and delivered in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Use the available talent

If you’re in the process of putting together a plant design, it’s worth seeking guidance from experienced operational people. These don’t need to be people you will ultimately employ at the plant – construction can be a long process and you don’t need them there that early. There are plenty of people with a high level of operational experience available for this kind of project (some of the best of them work at JAMCEM!), and their advice will easily pay for itself.

However, as the equipment starts being brought in, it’s worth bringing in some key people who will ultimately run the plant so that they can familiarise themselves with how it all fits together and work out all those important access points.

Identifying the issue is just the starting point

When you measure plant performance, what are you measuring? The most obvious starting point is profit margin – income vs expenses. There is no doubt that this is an important one, but it doesn’t really tell you how well your plant is performing. To understand that, you have to delve deeper into the data.

So you run a performance analysis and work out how each area of the plant is doing. Hopefully you follow the advice in my earlier article about benchmarking, and rather than run the data collected against other plants in the group or in the region, you run it against what you know your plant ought to be capable of. You find discrepancies – your mill isn’t running at the rated capacity, or your fuel consumption is abnormally high. The data is telling you that there is a problem, but not what’s causing it. What is your next step?

The solution has a cost – and so does a lack of action

There are a number of options here: troubleshoot the problem in house (which is a good option if – and these days it’s a big if – you have the necessary expertise within the company), refer it to your company’s Technical Centre, if you have one, or to a consultant, or go back to the OEM for guidance. You may need to do more than one of these to get the answers you need. But even then you only get an answer. To actually reach a solution takes another step altogether and we often find that this is where the bottleneck occurs.

There is a difference in perception, isn’t there, between the money we are not making and money we are spending? Agreeing to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a project feels like a much greater expense, somehow, than knowing that every day we do nothing we are missing out on revenue that over the course of the year may add up to twice that amount.

The “Cost of Delay”

This is a well-known phenomenon, by no means unique to the cement or even the manufacturing industries. It is known as the Cost of Delay. What it basically comes down to is a very simple calculation – what is the cost of doing nothing? If, for example, a problem with the rollers on the raw mill resulted in higher energy expenses and reduced production amounting to £250 000 per year, each month that passes with no solution undertaken costs the plant more than £20 000. What about the cost of procrastinating over whether to embark on an alternative fuels project, only to find in the meantime a competitor has stepped in and taken the source of alternative fuel? Or thinking about the cost of reviewing the manning levels on the plant without considering that payback for the study could only be a matter of months?

"The land of delaying decisions is littered with missed opportunities!"

Factor in the Cost of Delay to decision making

Part of the problem is that the Cost of Delay is rarely given the high priority that it deserves, whereas the cost of the solution is discussed at length by various entities within what can be an extensive chain of command. Getting these people together to have a meeting can in itself take several weeks if not months. And every day the decision is delayed, the Cost of Delay increases. What would happen if you said to the board that delaying a decision until next month’s meeting would cost £20 000?

We don’t advocate rushing a decision – it’s important you have established that the solution you are being offered is both necessary and appropriate. However, if it’s bureaucracy or budget that’s stopping you in your tracks, we would recommend that you calculate the Cost of Delay and factor that in to your decision-making.