Financing Bioeconomy Ventures, Pt. 8: Planning for Plant Startup and Operations

October 4, 2017 |

By Charles Loos, Bernard Cooker, and Mindy Collier, Lee Enterprises Consulting
Special to The Digest

To get a new plant started, management must provide the operating staff with training and a full complement of written procedures covering safety, operations, emergencies and environmental compliance. Though the process of defining and creating the necessary training and procedures is well known, management is often blindsided by; 1) The complexity of the task, 2) The limitations of the equipment vendor’s technical information and, 3) How early the task must be started. This article helps owners and managers plan a robust, timely and professional training/procedure program, while avoiding common mistakes.

Training programs and procedures must both rest on several bedrock principles. The foremost is the safety of personnel and equipment. Also fundamental is operating efficiency, in close alignment with plant economics. Operational experience has also shown that starting early, and involving plant personnel, are essential to success.


The word “training” frequently evokes images of droning lectures, stuffy rooms and boring equipment manuals. Nevermore. Imagine instead a spirited presenter with a whiteboard eliciting lively questions and frank discussions. Imagine laughter, tabletop demonstrations and attendees writing their own notes. Picture an audience of not just operators, but laboratory technicians, maintenance staff and administrative personnel. Imagine a program which engages many styles of learning, including hands-on, written word and visual. Picture a program that empowers every employee to say something if their senses detect something awry in the plant. Imagine a training program which inserts safety and a respect for lockout/tagout procedures into the very DNA of the plant.

Classroom Training

This caliber of classroom training is only achieved through proper planning. Reliance on “standard” classroom training from equipment suppliers is a common mistake. In addition to being dull, such training covers only certain pieces of equipment rather than the entire system. The best solution is some combination of 1) Third-party trainers, 2) In-house training by subject-matter experts and, 3) Specifying custom training requirements as part of the equipment purchase orders.

Operators and laboratory technicians also require detailed training which is not appropriate for administrative staff. Such training must cover the very serious subjects of managing transients, emergency shut downs, optimizing operating conditions and truly understanding the process.   Training must also cover regulatory requirements such as air and water discharge permits.

Undesirable though it is, something will eventually go wrong, whether a ruptured pipe, an unbalanced vessel or a separator whining which indicates that something is amiss. Operators who are physically stationed in the processing area, may become accustomed to noises and odors. The concerns of office or laboratory personnel that something does not smell or sound right should never be underestimated. They come from another part of the plant and may notice something that the operator has become desensitized to. One of the authors of this article was frequently called “the nose” for identifying leaks and overheating components.

When the unforeseen strikes, operators, like soldiers, default to their training. Training must include the gritty details; block flow diagrams, corrosion, instrument failure, personal protective equipment (PPE), seal failure, fire and unexpected vibration being examples. Classroom training in safety and compliance procedures is important, since they are integral to everyday operation. Lock Out Tag Out (LOTO) training is essential and can be via video, as well as written material.

Hands-On Training

In addition to classroom training, hands-on training is essential. A classic form requires the student to walk through the process plant with a Piping and Instrumentation Diagram (P&ID) in hand, verifying that every component on the P&ID actually exists in the field. This teaches the student where things are located, their appearance, and the physical arrangement of the system.

Instructor-led plant tours should be interactive. Which student can remember how long a reaction takes in a given vessel, or what is the optimum temperature? The instructor should emphasize the particular concerns, including safety issues, relating to specific unit operations in the process. He should discuss the personnel hazards and the required PPE, discuss the feeds and exit streams from each piece of equipment and talk about internals, troubleshooting, repairs and ordering correct spare parts.

Factory Training

Training courses offered by equipment suppliers can give trainees an inside look at equipment on the factory floor and in the test cell. Under the tutelage of factory representatives, trainees can examine the equipment and review components. Safe operation can often be best demonstrated at the plant. Sometimes a raw material, additive or solvent is employed where important properties and/or safety hazards are best demonstrated on the shop floor.

Ongoing Training, Management of Change

Training should be ongoing; learning continues because processes, equipment and safety protocols frequently change. Ongoing training may include refresher presentations, equipment vendor presentations, and ongoing safety presentations. Training should include communication skills and team building exercises. Management also must provide training for new hires and encourage suggestions for safety improvement and efficiency from the operators and laboratory staff. The Management of Change protocols must be rigorous, describing changes accurately and in detail, reviewing them for safety hazards and identifying means for their elimination, control and mitigation. This entails implementation of appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), modification of procedures, engineering controls and documentation through P&ID revision. Training in LOTO, confined space entry and other life critical procedures must be given to operating and maintenance personnel on a periodic basis.

Operating and Maintenance Procedures

Written operating procedures must be developed for everything from equipment operations to break times. This may appear excessive to small businesses, but it provides clarity, direction, safety and definition of the process through which the facility operates, maintaining operational efficiency, regardless of the size of the corporation. It is best to have approved written operating procedures in place, so that all staff work to the same expectations, with the same understanding. Operating procedures can and do change, depending upon needs and events but these changes must be well managed for safety and optimal performance.

Experienced plant operators should help draft the operating procedures, under the guidance of the supervisory staff. This prompts deeper thinking about the hazards, process and equipment which they will deal with. The Operating Procedures should cover start up, steady state, transients, normal shut down and emergency shutdown conditions. All required safety procedures, including use of PPE and emergency equipment operation, should also be included.

Procedures must also cover environmental requirements, notably the specific requirements of the plant air and wastewater permits.   The entire suite of facility permits must be distilled down to a set of requirements for incorporation into the operating procedures. Responsibility to translate these requirements to clear, concise and readable procedures rests with management.   Typical permit requirements include sampling, emissions limits, data archiving, incident reporting and routine reporting.

It is wise to have the unit operating procedures printed and in a binder, making them independent of electrical power, and also accessible on all control screens. The binder must never leave the site and preferably never leave the control room.

Procedure Readability

Procedures, like training, are often verbose, dull and hard to use. The useful information is frequently buried in pages of boilerplate. These deficiencies can and should be avoided. Procedures should be concise, clear and specific. Towards this end, we recommend the following;

  • Operators write the procedures in conjunction with the supervisor, who has the final word
  • Safety hazards are summarized at the beginning. Specify the details of the PPE and engineering controls wherever they are needed in the main body.
  • The text is in brief sections (less than 1/3 page), each with a clear, explanatory title. The sections are in order of process flow, processing, input and output or chronological, whichever is most appropriate.
  • Operating Procedures use a hierarchy of major sections and subsections.
  • The process purpose, reaction chemistry, separations physical chemistry are explained after Safety.
  • Operating Procedures then explain the process unit operations via the Block Flow Diagrams and P&IDs
  • Sections follow on Starting Up the Plant for the First Time, Normal Start Up. Normal Steady State Operation, Transients, Normal Shut Down and Emergency Shut Down.
  • The complete set of Material Safety Data Sheets follows.

Computerized Maintenance Management Systems

Computerized Maintenance Manager Systems (CMMS) are highly beneficial when used properly. However an initial investment of time and effort is required enter components, identification numbers and the parameters of the maintenance required for each piece of equipment. The adage “garbage in, garbage out” applies here. Equipment operating manuals should have the information needed, including frequency and type of maintenance required, depending upon usage. Usage is key to proper equipment maintenance and it is probably best to err on the generous side when estimating it.

Technical staff must contact the equipment vendor if the standard and emergency maintenance information is inadequate, and correct the deficiency. These details should be in a written data base, with links to the vendor information. Occasionally, the vendor’s information is incorrect or out of date, and the internal plant records must be corrected. This is a good example of Management of Change, including informing every one of the correction. Once the CMMS is set up, procedures for completing and recording the required maintenance must be developed. This includes who is responsible for the maintenance, how are they informed, and where they enter the results of the maintenance. CMMS is a great system but requires disciplined effort to yield maximum benefits.


Training and procedures, so foundational to successful plant startup, often fall short of excellence. Dull lectures and verbose procedures reduce operator effectiveness and must not be tolerated. Best practices dictate that training and procedures be started early, crafted well, and presented to end users as crisp, reliable, user-friendly tools.

About the Authors

Charles Loos, P.E. is a member of the Lee Enterprises Consulting. He has 35 years of experience in the power industry with skills in engineering, operations management, startup, project development and environmental permitting. He was responsible for the EPC contracting process at power development companies. Whether a wood-fired project in timberland, or an industrial cogeneration plant, he excels at judging the suitability of a proposed plant site, with due consideration for technical, operational and environmental factors.

Bernard Cooker, Ph.D , a member of Lee Enterprises Consulting, has 37 years in industrial process R&D, design and scale up. Most recently, Bernard worked for two start-ups in lignocellulosic biomass deconstruction and p-xylene synthesis from cellulose. Previously, he gained wide experience in applied powder mechanics, polymer and monomer synthesis and recovery, development of new propylene oxide processes and catalyst development, testing and manufacture. He also improved the yield of the commercialized PO/TBA epoxidation process. He is an inventor on two biotechnology process patent applications and 20 issued U.S. patents. He has 47 publications in all.

Mindy Collier, a member of Lee Enterprises Consulting, has a B.A. from Indiana State University and an M.A. in Planning & Management from Indiana University. She is the founder and President of Collier & Associates and has over 25 years of consulting experience, including “hands on” experience in renewable fuel plants. Mindy is also an experienced grant writer and has successfully written grants for solar, biodiesel and other alternative fuels projects. She works with clients in identifying and writing all types of alternative and renewable grants.



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