Many questions come to mind when completing critical phases of construction during a global pandemic. Among them: How can I complete critical factory acceptance testing or project startup when members of my team can’t physically be on-site?
We recently confronted those scenarios earlier this year. With the COVID-19 pandemic ramping up and oil and gas prices in a freefall, some Burns & McDonnell clients delayed projects or imposed site restrictions.
COVID’s impact on projects in the midstream sector created an unusual set of complications. Among other factors, travel restrictions and social distancing severely limited access to job sites and manufacturing facilities where critical equipment was completed and ready for acceptance testing.
New wearable technology, deployed by Burns & McDonnell in partnership with RealWear and Manitoba Hydro International, proved to be the solution in both instances. This proprietary software, called VisualSpection, is gaining increased acceptance in use cases where access by engineering and technical staff is limited for safety or other reasons.
When the COVID-19 pandemic really began to gain momentum in the U.S. in early March, we had equipment components for a major project ready for factory acceptance testing. Typically, at this stage, we send two or more project team members and a client representative to the manufacturer, where they run a series of tests and diagnostics to verify that the equipment will perform as specified. Whether it’s electrical gear needing a wiring check, electronics and related components, or compressors or other heavy equipment that will be essential to a hydrocarbon processing facility, the acceptance process is critical before anything can be shipped to the project site.
With access to the factory floor severely limited, we concluded our best option was to send a single engineer equipped with a wearable device affixed to a hardhat that enabled the engineer to host a video-teleconference for a team of project engineers hundreds of miles away.
The system is essentially a computer tablet clipped onto a construction hardhat operated by voice-activated, hands-free software. Field personnel conducting an inspection or other physical walk-through can simply look at equipment and relay that image to online participants. The system is capable of generating a “digital twin” of the component or equipment being viewed. This digital twin is composed of a geolocation, equipment name, important equipment data and media. The information can be viewed along with specifications and/or inspection documentation.
In this particular instance, the engineer performing the on-site inspection was able to relay a high-resolution view of the components back to the project engineers, who directed the inspection protocols and developed detailed checklists of wiring and components within the equipment that needed to be sent back to the shop for rework. Depending on the complexity of the equipment to be certified for acceptance at the factory, this phase can take anywhere from a couple of days up to a week or two. It was a tedious effort, going through all pieces, looking at everything and pulling all the wires, but the wearable device proved to be the solution, given our limited access due to COVID-19 restrictions.
In the second instance, two new heaters for a hydrocarbon processing unit were nearly complete when COVID-19 restrictions forced the client to limit access to the facility by contractors and work crews. The first phase was completed and we had turned over the majority of the unit for refining operations, with the exception of two heaters that had not yet gone through startup. The heaters must be up and running for the plant to commence processing operations at 100% of capacity.
With access limited, we initiated a plan to send a single engineer from our Houston office equipped with a hardhat-mounted wearable device. Because the startup would be executed in a live operating environment on large capacity 150 million Btu heaters, we performed intensive rehearsal drills on procedures and protocols that this engineer would be required to perform while on-site. Even though our engineer would be directed every step of the way through his live video feed, it was imperative that he be familiar with all steps and procedures and have access to all documentation in advance.
The critical challenge in starting up a heater of this magnitude is that we have to begin introducing hot oil and fuel gas into the system and checking and rechecking at each stage that the equipment is performing as designed. This process can involve troubleshooting, throttling certain systems up and others back, checking and rechecking to make sure all systems are within design parameters. These large, high-capacity heaters build up significant momentum once they begin operations, even during startup, and it would have been difficult to stop had we run into problems.
The wearables interconnection performed flawlessly and the engineers and other staff who had designed and worked with these heaters from cradle to grave were able to communicate during the walk-through in real time. The wearable device’s documentation upload capabilities provided access to all steps and procedures, well-defined in advance even though participants were directing the operation from various locations. Even though we were navigating through a live operating environment, there were no lags or delays in any steps critical to the startup.
It seems clear we are entering a new phase where technology-enabled methods and innovations can help the engineering and construction industry quickly adapt to changing priorities of many types.
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