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Important steps leading to a successful start-up
Whether involving a new process, manufacturing system, or a rebuild of existing equipment, the challenges of bringing a project on-line successfully are essentially the same. And basically, the same thought processes and actions can be used on a single piece of equipment or when changing information technology. If you are part of a start-up team, or have been assigned to manage this type of work, it is very important to organize every detail of the operation. In the paper industry, you will no doubt be aware of start-ups which went smoothly, and others which are remembered as nightmares. Let's consider how to eliminate the nightmares.

1.) Understand the process, system, and/or equipment in-depth beforehand.

Due to the cost involved in these ventures, there is no substitute for knowledge and experience in the work team and managers involved. The project may require a range of skills, and all supporting individuals involved must be highly qualified in their respective fields. To the extent possible, key operating personnel should be "pre-trained", using the knowledge and facilities of supplier or OEM sources. This will probably require visits or class work at outside locations, but the expense of doing this is usually justified. Visits to other locations already using similar processes or equipment can also be valuable, if these can be arranged.

2.) Decide on the project manager and start-up team.

Every project needs a strong leader and decision maker. This person should be involved in the selection of the support team individuals, both in terms of qualification reviews and deciding how many are needed. It is the responsibility of the project manager to decide whether outside support personnel are needed, and to arrange for their presence at the proper time. This may include experienced assistance from OEMs, suppliers, or other divisions of the company. If the project is large scale, those assigned should be required to remain on site for the duration, rather than contributing on a piece-meal basis.

3.) Establish a reasonable time frame for project length

One of the primary reasons for difficult start-ups is the setting of unrealistic timetables. In addition, many start-up failures occur due to beginning before all elements are completely ready. Of course, management will want the task completed in as short a period as possible. But there is much more involved than simply pushing the "start" button and expecting high-quality product to emerge from the other end. Each step of the start-up procedure must be assigned a completion time, with tolerance for the unexpected, such as unanticipated replacement of equipment, burst piping, electrical/instrument failures, and so forth. However, once the time frame has been established, it is absolutely necessary that the project stay on schedule, as it is very likely that other parts of the operation are also depending on the completion date. This requires an open and continuous line of communication between all support team members and the project manager, who in turn keeps other departments updated on the project status.

4.) Acquire the necessary design/layout schematics and manuals.

One might ask," Aren't these the things that end up stored in computer files or found on bookshelves years later?" The answer is yes, but before the start-up, they form the foundation for many project activities, and are very important particularly when the project is complex. Reviewing a piping or electrical schematic will help bring the project to life visually. And while reading manuals associated with the equipment or process can be time consuming, these help clarify questions beforehand and later serve as a point of reference when needed during operational difficulties, or for additional training.

5.) Conduct in-depth training for operators and supervisors.

Before meaningful training can be done, it is necessary to develop specific procedures, using the information provided in Step 4 above, and also the knowledge of the experienced personnel available. This time-consuming step is critical to prepare operators in advance of the start-up. Procedures essentially distill the vast amount of information available into a useful and understandable format. Once these are developed, an effective training program can be launched for all associated personnel, including supervisors. They will also prove to be useful for trouble-shooting during the start-up phase. Training should be as much "hands on" as possible, and include the related safety aspects. It is useful to conduct tests periodically, to determine if the subject matter is being understood. And, of course, the procedures must be kept updated when conditions change.

6.) Prepare and make use of checklists.

To assist in implementing the procedures, it is very helpful to have checklists available to clarify the sequence of start-up events and to make sure critical steps are not by-passed or overlooked. Different checklists are needed for each phase of the operation, and they must fit the flow of the work. Other requirements of the checklists are: 1) a specific response is required for each item on the list, 2) the format must be direct and uncluttered, and 3) the checklist can be completed in a reasonable length of time. It should also be expected that the checklists will need to be updated periodically to improve efficiency.

7.) Break larger start-ups into stages.

It is unreasonable to believe that all phases of a new process or equipment installation can be brought on line simultaneously without difficulty. Take for example, the start-up of a new paper machine system. While many phases of the operation can undergo start-up in parallel mode, those involved in the continuous flow of product are initially best considered separately and sequentially. These include areas like stock preparation, refining, and sheet forming. Once all areas have been separately operated, they can be linked on the start-up date.

8.) Have a contingency plan.

It should be expected that on-the-spot corrections and modifications will be needed, in spite of all the advance planning and training. It is very important to plan for the unexpected, by doing a Kepner-Tregoe® potential problem analysis before the start-up date. For example, is there a plan for disposal of any off-quality product produced? In my experience, it has been useful to discuss worst case scenarios and actions to be taken in the event any of these happen. Assigning probabilities to whether an outcome is likely to develop will not only result in better preparation, but will also build confidence that all critical parts of the start-up have been fully identified during the planning.

I hope the above steps will be useful in achieving a successful start-up. A start-up can be extremely challenging, but upon completion, the accomplishment can become a milestone in the careers of those involved. And, the experience obtained from participation in a start-up is invaluable to those involved.

Robert Moore is a retired chemical engineer, and is an experienced technical and fictional writer. His past work experience spanned the chemical, paper and equipment manufacturing industries, including holding management positions at Voith Paper, Scapa plc, and The Mead Paper Corporation. He is also the author of humorous short stories about life in southwest Virginia, circa 1940-1960.

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