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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.