By Brittani Schroeder

Rob has always had a passion for working with machines and exploring the intricacies of their mechanics. Engineering was not his first choice when it came to selecting a discipline to study in school. “My original goal was to study auto-technology, but the particular school I wanted to attend was already full. So, as second choice I altered my focus to become a marine engineer. Before I knew it, I passed my degree and found myself as a marine engineer on an oil tanker in Dubai,” Rob remembered. “It was not a conscious choice—it just happened, and the five years to follow became one of the best periods of my life!”

For five years following the completion of his first degree, Rob worked on oil tankers as a marine engineer in the engine room, gaining a lot of experience with steam turbines, heavy fuel diesel engines, pumps and so on. After approximately five years, Rob changed his career from being a marine engineer to an onshore mechanic. This career change created a great opportunity to continue studying, so Rob found himself back in the classroom working towards a degree in mechanical engineering, production technology and economics. “In Dutch we call this a High Technical Grade. This study is what really helped to fulfill my dream to become a Technical Authority and Team Lead of a Rotating Equipment Engineering team.”

Many Responsibilities

As Team Lead of Rotating Equipment, Rob oversees a team of approximately 10 engineers who are responsible for a large fleet of rotating equipment installed on a number of platforms in the southern North Sea, as well as two onshore locations where we are evacuating the gas into the Netherlands and the U.K. grids.

One of Rob’s main responsibilities is to coach the team through their personal ambitions for their future, training, exposure and career-supporting decisions. “I spend about 40% of my time with coaching and communication with my team and planning; 30% is put towards our more critical technical issues and projects; and another 30% towards. the leadership role and contracts,” he continued. “When I started my job, I really enjoyed working with the machines. That part has not changed, but what I now enjoy most is working with people and getting tasks done with a good team around me.”

Of course, there are also challenges that come along with Rob’s job. “The most difficult challenges we experience are those we try to avoid at all costs: a major breakdown of our critical equipment, leading to unexpected production deferments. In situations like this we are caught in a spider’s web between operators who want to start production again as soon as possible, and the broken equipment,” said Rob. “There is a lot of pressure on our shoulders to limit the consequential deferment as much as possible, but we also need to make the right decisions for the most effective repairs. If done correctly, safely and against realistic costs, there will be no risk for our people and the environment. It is our job to ensure integrity and reliability.” As a result, Rob spends a lot of his time managing expectations when it comes to expected and unexpected shutdowns. “Taking shortcuts is not an option.”

With a no nonsense, can-do mentality built up over the years, Rob approaches all challenges in the same way. “If you are out on a tanker and something breaks, you cannot wait for someone to come and fix the problem. You need to deal with it yourself, starting with understanding, communication, reacting, fixing. I like to think, ‘do not talk too much, use common sense, search for support/information if required and just do it and get it done,’ and that helps me through most of it.”

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Major Pump Applications

Rob sees a wide array of pumps in his role like membrane pumps, plunger pumps, gear pumps and an enormous variety of centrifugal pumps. “If I had to pick, I would say the membrane pumps are the most intricate to work with, as they have a reasonably vulnerable system. The membranes, in combination with the oil system, including the different internal control valves, are quite vulnerable and require specific attention and maintenance,” Rob explained. Membrane pumps are typically installed for the injection of chemicals and/or transport of dangerous liquids. A positive advantage of this type of pump is that they are a fully closed system, which means no active seals are required to separate the dangerous liquids from the environment. A second important advantage of these pumps is the simple capacity to control possibilities, which is ideal for chemical injection requirements.

Maintenance Requirements

The first step in defining maintenance requirements is to understand the duty of the related rotating equipment, consequences of failure and dominant failure-modes. “Based on these parameters we will be able to define the maintenance tasks; this process is a well-known principle called RCM (Reliability Centered Maintenance). As soon as the maintenance strategy has been translated into realistic maintenance tasks and frequencies, it is key to align these maintenance tasks with the inspection and/or project-driven shutdown schedule,” Rob explained. “Part of our maintenance strategy is based on online condition monitoring as well. For our critical rotating equipment, it is key to understand their performance and behavior in order to avoid/predict possible issues or breakdowns, or to recognize possible opportunities to postpone major maintenance.” 

As each type of equipment requires different maintenance, conditioned-based maintenance is of great financial benefit, especially in the case of redundancies. Rob said, “90% of our installed pumps are redundant – condition-based maintenance could leverage maximum application efficiency of these pumps while significantly reducing total cost of ownership. In practice, we have major maintenance strategies in place to keep things running if a pump fails,” Rob related.

For example, the main operational problem with a membrane pump is the limited lifetime of the membrane. “If you have a membrane pump in a clean service, such as chemical injection, the membrane will probably last two to three years. If the membrane is used in a dirty service, like evacuation of a water condensate mixture, the membrane usually must be exchanged every year. With all these different types of equipment and operational conditions, we must adopt a maintenance strategy that will be able to take into account these different maintenance intervals within the given shutdown planning,” said Rob.

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Working with Valves

Rotating equipment is not where Rob’s experience ends. He has gained significant experience working with valves, actuators, and all the equipment surrounding them. “I was once responsible for pipeline valves, and we are talking about 36-inch valves, so really big! They were the main valves in the gas transport lines of the Netherlands, and you can only imagine how much work it took to open a valve of that size,” related Rob.

His experiences with valves vary from high pressure ball valves, special piston type valves, huge gate valves, to orbit valves. Rob continued, “Every type of valve has its own specific design and function. I quickly realized while working as a static engineer that valves are very interesting and well worth the effort to deepen my knowledge and skills.”

Having worked with valves for several years, Rob has noticed a change in the severity of monitoring processes for valves. “In the beginning, monitoring of leak tightness or leakages to the atmosphere was not as big a deal as it is nowadays. In the early ‘90s we started to work with a company that had developed a kind of ultrasound monitoring device that could detect internal leakages of valves just by the sound of it. Based on high frequency sound measurements we could get an idea about a possible leak and the size of leak we were dealing with,” said Rob. “Based on the requirements of leak tightness we were able to define an effective plan for intervention.”

Since the definition of leak tightness was not specified per valve position, Rob worked with process engineers in order to define the requirements for leak-tightness per position and function in the installation. Based on a maximum failure scenario, by example a pipe rupture in combination with an ignition, the team calculated the heat radiation and the consequential damage on the nearby process installation. “Based on those calculations we could decide if a valve needed to be leak tight or not. If you define the leak tightness of valves in different positions, you could then argue which ones needed to be monitored closely for safety,” said Rob. “I think that is really what remote monitoring is about: safety.”

Monitoring Emissions

At present, one of the biggest challenges Rob faces is the reduction of emissions. “If we are looking at centrifugal pumps, centrifugal compressors, reciprocating compressors, pump seals and valves, you will still be able to observe a certain amount of environmental unfriendly leakages to the atmosphere. I am convinced that it is our upmost responsibility to pay attention to that problem and develop ways to avoid and stop this. I am very lucky to work for a company with the same vision,” he said.

Applying smart technologies to monitor their equipment is one way to help to mitigate potential problems. “Present smart technologies are applied more and more as supporting systems to detect anomalies,” Rob explained. “It is most important that we know that our equipment is running within their design envelopes without possible development of unexpected failure modes. We are mostly monitoring our critical equipment. Typical parameters being monitored are vibration of bearings, flow, temperatures, pressures and power consumption. Additionally, we have regular operator inspection rounds where we collect data from unconnected machinery and upload this data to a central server, enabling us to analyze performance and behavior of the unconnected different types of equipment remotely.”

For Rob’s team, remote monitoring is a minimum requirement to monitor the dynamic behavior of the installed critical equipment. “Consider an installed fleet of critical compressors with the different drivels like gas-turbines and engines in a range varying from 1 to 24Mw; it is not hard to understand that we need to have remote access to the monitored data in order to know on a day-by-day basis how they perform and behave,” Rob relayed. “In our company we have developed a condition monitoring program which we use for daily remote monitoring and surveillance. We compare machine performance against theoretical performance information and monitor vibration levels, power consumption, and so on. With this information we are able to trend equipment behavior and simulate the different production configurations/scenarios in order to make possible intervention decisions on our equipment,” said Rob.

“We have an important responsibility for future generations to uphold. We need to work together and figure out solutions for combatting emissions, reduction of consumption of natural resources. It may affect our budgets, which is a challenge on its own, but I believe it is something we definitely need to invest in now, rather than later,” Rob expressed. “We need to realize that we really are able to change the future for coming generations right now!”

Rob also talked about how his colleagues have been using smart technology to track fluctuations and variations in different data streams and setting alarms to alert the responsible people when something happens. “Each of my team members have been assigned to one or more particular production platforms with their associated installed rotating equipment to look after and be responsible for. Every engineer has the obligation to look at their assigned machines every morning and know how their equipment is performing. They need to know what kind of anomalies are happening, and whether or not the machines will continue to perform properly,” he explained. “I want my engineers to really own their work and own their machines. I want them to be the experts.” Rob’s drive is to motivate a sense of freedom and trust, as well as creating ownership in his team. “If our engineers own those machines, they will know exactly when something starts to go wrong, which hopefully helps us to intervene in time before the occurrence of major breakdowns.”

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Final Advice

When asked to share advice for new engineers entering the world of rotating equipment, Rob had a lot to share. “I want to emphasize the importance of getting your hands dirty and getting a feel for the machinery. A new engineer cannot get directly into a role of rotating equipment engineering, while expecting to know and understand the machines in the real world right away. It will take time to truly understand what the equipment does and how to approach your day-to-day operations,” Rob expressed.

With a few students always interning or completing a co-op placement with him and his team, Rob often witnesses the truth of his advice firsthand. One student he remembers very well. “A student was completing his thesis and he joined us at our Rotterdam location. We do have centrifugal compressors over there of 4.7 Mw which runs 14,700 RPM, on magnetic bearings—serious pieces of machinery. This particular student was very proud to be working on rotating equipment, however he had never seen anything quite like it before, so he really had no clue what to expect,” said Rob. “We took him over to one of the machines to run a surge test, which is considered to be a violent-behavior in a compressor, creating a lot of strange noises and vibrations. When all that power released during the test, I was standing beside the student, and I had never seen someone run as quickly as he did away from that machine.” With a bit of laughter, Rob stated, “Before you can truly learn to appreciate rotating machinery, you need to go out and physically work with them, observe, feel, smell, listen and understand, that is the basis to truly becoming a real rotating equipment engineer.”

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