Activated Economics: Overcoming the Fear of a Better Idea!

January 09, 2018

My good friend Paul Assaiante, famous coach at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, USA, who coached his squash teams through 252 consecutive match wins over more than 12 seasons, credits his success to the concept of "running to the roar." In fact, he's published a book about it. It goes back to an African parable, explaining why lions catch antelope: An elderly lion roars, and the antelope run in the other direction, right into the path of the rest of the pride of lions, who are well positioned. If only the antelope could learn to be brave enough to run "to the roar," they would escape the trap.

I'm going to relate this to the breakthrough "Activated Economics" capability that AspenTech introduced about four years ago. The idea of Activated Economics breaks the sequential workflow in early process design, to allow organizations to optimize costs and come up with creative solutions. But it takes a bit of bravery on the part of a process engineering organization to break with the methodology that has "always worked" and look at a new way to achieve better and more competitive designs.

Traditional Approach

Traditionally, the process engineer conducts process synthesis and develops the process schema, and then the process model. At that stage, ideas of costs are only a vague notion. The process engineer relies on "rules of thumb" or prior experience to guess whether he is proposing an economically viable process. In fact, I have heard organizations tell me that process engineers "are not allowed to present a cost number."

It is the estimator who calculates the costs, and this requires a significant transfer of information from the process engineer to the cost engineer before that analysis can begin. What I have seen, over the past 18 months, is that the organizational “walls” that separate the process engineer and the estimator are increasingly recognized as an important impediment to driving down capital costs and achieving agility in designing the optimal process.

More Powerful Approach

So, what Aspen has introduced is a rigor-based method to provide the process engineer with access to what we call "relative economics," to distinguish them from the costs that an organization is so eager to ensure that the process engineer cannot access. These relative economics are based on the proven and rigorous "volumetric" costing models that major estimating groups use on the world’s largest projects, and they provide a valuable indication as to which process alternatives are going to be economically competitive. Activated Economics provides the process engineer with an inside-battery-limit idea of capital cost magnitude, together with operating cost and revenue numbers, to arrive at a project lifetime net present value (NPV).

This is an extremely powerful tool, and it has enabled some global organizations to achieve truly remarkable results, which they have published. Yet there are still organizations out there that remain very hesitant to try this new approach. I have on my desk a really good book, by J.L.A. Koolen (a retired process engineer from Dow Chemical), called Design of Simple and Robust Process Plants. There are a lot of important ideas in there for today's process engineer, but I like one little quote from the book, hiding in there on page 89: “...Sequential thinking is a way to order and understand things, but it is this sequential thinking that must be broken in order to achieve simple and robust facilities.” Yes, this was written some years ago, but it’s still a barrier in big organizations in improving operability and profitability of plants. 

Capturing the Best of the Current Approaches

There are some extremely valuable aspects of the traditional approach, as all engineering teams know. We have worked hard to bring those valuable aspects to the fore in this new approach. It is the estimators that have the organization's knowledge and insight as to how to effectively create a realistic estimate and to reduce economic risk.

Because Activated Economics uses the same costing "engine" as the one used by estimators, we have been able to easily introduce the concept of costing templates, in which the estimators can provide the cost-basis standards that the organization uses to achieve good results, and these templates can be made transparently available to the process engineer who is using Activated Economics to look at relative costs.

Also, one of the biggest influences over the capital cost magnitude is directly related to selection of materials of construction. Materials of construction are easily exposed and adjusted in Activated Economics. Metallurgy is an interesting area in the design process. Different engineers are dogmatic in both directions. Some feel that only the estimator understands how metallurgy should be selected to achieve good FEED estimates. Other engineers feel that the process engineer, who best understands the chemistry and interactions happening in reactors, vessels and pipelines, has a lot to say about which metallurgies are ultimately going to result in operational integrity.

Additionally, the translation of the modeled process parameters into equipment that has a cost is, of course, dependent on the sizing methods and algorithms used. One of the values, we feel, of Activated Economics is the proprietary sizing algorithms that we have built into this functionality. But, of course, many organizations, both engineering and construction firms (E&Cs) and owner-operators, have well established and tested sizing methods approved within their organizations, sometimes by type of facility. These company-specific sizing rules or methods can easily be used in Activated Economics through Excel templates. Since most of these sizing standards actually are captured today in Excel spreadsheet applications, introducing them as templates is straightforward.

Some Successes That Stand Out

I will briefly mention four successes that stand out. Kuwait Oil Company saved tens of millions of dollars on a gas processing revamp project through this approach. They published the results at the AspenTech OPTIMIZE 2011 conference and also at the MEPEC (Saudi Arabian Section of the AIChE) conference in Bahrain later that year. Polimeri Europa (eni) achieved a similar result on a chemical plant debottlenecking project that they also published at the OPTIMIZE 2011, and CH2M Hill published, at the Spring 2013 AIChE meeting in San Antonio, the results of using this approach to arrive at the optimal condensate stabilization process.   

But perhaps the most important success presented recently, is the “Fast Concept Select” approach, developed by ExxonMobil’s Upstream business with the collaboration of AspenTech. Speaking at the AspenTech OPTIMIZE 2017 global conference in Houston, Texas, ExxonMobil announced success in developing a repeatable methodology for capturing best-case completed projects, organizing their process and costs as templates within the Aspen Capital Cost Estimator™ software and Activated Economics. ExxonMobil announced the first full scale application of this systematic approach achieved savings on the order of 50 percent time and 50 percent CAPEX. Other upstream companies are now looking at how to use this approach to drive down the capital cost of oil and gas asset exploitation.

Final Thoughts

Activated Economics will change the way that an organization can achieve the most economically advantageous process solutions. So RUN TO THE ROAR — or as Herbert Dow, founder of The Dow Chemical Company, famously said, "I can find a hundred men to tell me an idea won't work; what I want are men who will make it work."

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