Creating a Reliable Polymer Supply with Leading-Edge Simulation Technology

Creating a Reliable Polymer Supply with Leading-Edge Simulation Technology

Supply chain reliability matters. It matters because converter productivity, quality, and safety can depend on it. It matters because downtime may be costly. And it matters because a brand’s reputation can be impaired if they’re prevented from fulfilling an order.

By Shell Polymers on Jul 23, 2020

As the Shell Polymers Pennsylvania Chemicals project continues to gain momentum, this three-part series showcases how we’re hardwiring supply reliability into our business and leveraging the latest technology advancements to set our employees up for success. This includes training our operators on a state-of-the-art simulator that replicates the plant’s behavior and control systems, preparing them to handle unplanned scenarios and effectively run the plant.

Breaking the Mold with Custom Simulations

Last year, we introduced you to Terence Gettings and Lacree Parrish, just two of about 150 Shell Polymers employees who will take on full-time operations positions when the polyethylene plant is complete. As they prepare to get started, the excitement is palpable.

"We're learning, we're training, and we're writing procedures," Lacree explained. "To be a part of this and to see the plant being built from the ground up feels unreal."

Terence, Lacree, and their fellow operators will play a critical role in ensuring that Shell Polymers meets its delivery targets, and they will all train on the simulator. We asked Dominic Lavora, a production supervisor at the site, to tell us about it.

“The simulator means we’re able to get the operators comfortable with working on a unit that’s not even there yet,” he explains. “By the time the plant is live, each operator could have accrued the equivalent of a year’s worth of operating hours.”

Although plant simulators are relatively common in the polyethylene industry, many tend to be for generic units, rather than plant-specific. For Shell Polymers, training operators on a generic system wasn’t going to cut it.

“The difference with ours is that it uses the same interface and graphics as the control system in the live unit,” says Dominic. “That’s so important because it means that when we switch to the live environment, it isn’t going to be something the operators have never seen before.”

By training on a custom-made dynamic simulator that shows an exact replica of the plant, Shell Polymers Breaks the Mold for how polyethylene suppliers traditionally train their staff. This allows operators to be well-practiced on the exact technology they’ll use in the plant, without having to operate equipment in the field.

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Using Advanced Technology to Prepare for the Future

To use the simulator, trainees sit in front of a set of displays that is identical to the live environment. These screens show the schematics of the plant — flows, vessels, valves — but aren’t linked to it. That way, operators can walk through common sequences like starting up reactors, operating them in steady-state mode, performing grade transitions, and shutting them down safely.

Furthermore, operators can also be trained how to respond to malfunctions or specific scenarios.

“When you train operators on a live unit you clearly don't have that luxury,” Dominic says.

For example, the team could use the simulator to test how they would respond if specific equipment were to fail or evaluate responses to wider issues like a global disruption that leads to material shortages.

Many scenarios the simulator models aim to help operators get familiar with day-to-day activities. Other scenarios, which challenge the operators’ troubleshooting skills during abnormal situations, have been proposed by the highly-experienced team of experts Shell Polymers has assembled in Monaca. These seasoned industry professionals have spent decades in senior operating positions at other polyethylene production plants.

Jeremy Cross, the Production Unit Manager at the site, says, “We’re in a really fortunate position to have this expertise at our disposal and we’ve been conducting sessions so that everyone can benefit from it. They’ve been sharing their real-world experiences, describing things they’ve seen, and explaining what to look out for. Our operators have gained huge insights from that. It’s been priceless.”

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Rewriting the Polymer Playbook

Jeremy says the simulator is having a major impact on operator skill levels and competences, which will strengthen the organization’s ability to reliably provide polyethylene to plastic converters.

"We’ll be ahead of the curve when the plant starts up,” he concludes. “The operators will be well versed in what to do and what not to do when planned and unplanned scenarios occur. To have been able to get them familiar with a plant that does not even fully exist yet has been a huge game changer.”

The simulator is just one way that Shell Polymers is rewriting the polymer playbook to hardwire supply reliability into its business and offer an unrivaled customer experience. In the next article in this series, we’ll reveal some of the digitalization technologies that will form the backbone of one of the world’s most advanced polyethylene production facilities.

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