One of the world’s largest starch refining operations was aiming to capitalize on increased demand for their biomass conversion product. Under normal running conditions, the biorefinery’s production had not been able to keep up with the increased demand. To add to this stress, the biorefinery had recently been dealing with steadily decreasing crude material quality causing reduced production yields. Management feared that the combination of these two challenges would allow their competitors to permanently capture the additional market share.
The Operations team had worked to improve production rates to a maximum calculated given the biological limitations of the process. Even at maximum theoretical rates, though, they still would not produce enough to meet demand. Seeing limited opportunity to further increase production with the lower-quality feedstock, the leadership team was concerned that multi-million dollar capital expansion would be necessary; and that they would have to rush to make it worthwhile. This expensive, time-intensive capital solution would be extremely risky in the emerging market. In a last effort to increase production before committing to the new capital, the company called in Stroud to help.
By using a zero-based approach to compare current performance to perfect-world operation, Stroud helped uncover more than 130% additional capacity hidden within the existing assets. Stroud challenged what was the potential of the process by looking at the production rate assuming process fouling and other biological limitations of the process could be overcome. By making all improvement opportunities visible, the team was able to highlight two focus areas for rapid improvements: extending the length of product runs by eliminating a long-standing fouling problem and reducing the cleaning time between consecutive product runs.
Distillation column fouling caused plant-wide stoppages every 48-72 hours, heavily bottlenecking production. Academic institutions and equipment manufacturers had ongoing efforts to find a solution to the fouling problem, but progress was slow and yielded few results. By applying a structured, first principles problem solving process, the Stroud and client team gained a rigorous in-field understanding of the key drivers impacting column fouling. This team then designed carefully targeted trials, and in turn was able to identify the root cause of the fouling issues to be unexpected mineral deposits. They accordingly implemented the appropriate filters necessary, yielding a five-fold increase in run length on lowest quality crudes.
In parallel, the team also focused on reducing the cleaning time between runs, an area that had received much focus in the past and was not believed to have much opportunity to improve. By challenging the ability to complete tasks ahead of time or in parallel, the team was able to decrease cleaning times by 25%.
After 6 months the refining operation was achieving unrecognisable levels of performance. Average output was up 80% relative to the start of the team, worth an additional 8M€ in profit annually.
By challenging constraints and longstanding procedures, Stroud helped demonstrate that problems believed to be “unsolvable” could become key areas of opportunity. This sparked a shift in the company’s mindsets and drove additional improvement efforts across the facility.