Keeping industrial operations running means sometimes shutting them down; a fact that the engineers and inspectors at Acuren know all too well. Acuren does materials testing and inspection work, offering advanced technologies to a number of industries, including oil and gas, power generation, pipeline, pulp and paper, and many others.
Acuren is owned by Rockwood Service Corp., whose other operations include 34 U.S. locations, and Sperry Rail, which is headquartered in Connecticut and provides rail flaw inspection services globally. Acuren is by far the largest company in the $2 billion North American industrial nondestructive testing (NDT) industry.
Tal Pizzey has a long history with the company. In the summer of 1981, he came on board as a grade 11 student, doing heat-treating for $6 an hour. When he graduated from high school, Pizzey headed off to the University of Alberta to study metallurgical engineering. As part of the five-year cooperative program there, he worked summers and work terms with Hanson Materials Engineering. After he got his degree, he was hired on full time to do failure investigations. Since then, he obtained an MBA and worked his way into the top job for Acuren in Canada. Pizzey has seen the company change names twice over the years; Hanson Materials Engineering was acquired by Canspec Group Inc. in 1990, and Rockwood acquired Canspec in 1997. Pizzey was involved in choosing the Acuren name in 2005, saying that they did extensive research before deciding on one that reflected their commitment to accuracy and engineering.
Sometimes bigger is better
“We’re the largest company in this industry in the world,” Pizzey says, noting that Acuren is also the only company that does both materials engineering and inspection. He notes, though, that the company’s size is not a selling point in itself. “It’s not necessarily the right sales tactic to say, ‘I’m big, so hire me.’” However, being big does allow Acuren certain advantages. The first benefit is tactical. Acuren’s size allows it to make “critical mass bets,” says Pizzey. Because of its 60 offices across North America, the company can get involved in niche services and technologies—the ability to develop software to image and trend boiler wall thickness, for example—an opportunity that smaller operations don’t have. The second advantage , Pizzey says, is having the staff and resources to develop and implement specialized trai-ning programs and deploy new technologies that improve the quality of their work, “We develop procedures and training programs and vet the vendors,” says Pizzey. “There’s a detailed way of introducing new technology to make sure that we’re able to have a consistent high-quality product.” The results are evident: Acuren is an ISO-certified company, and Pizzey notes that Acuren’s employees are reminded that the company’s success is dependent on the work they do. Having good controls, training, and equipment helps Acuren manage risk effectively.
Keeping downtime to a minimum
The inspections Acuren provides for its clients are a crucial part of their operations, helping them operate safely and save money by preventing unplanned outages and failure. The harsh conditions that many industrial facilities operate in—high temperatures and corrosive environments—take a toll on pieces of equipment, giving them a limited lifespan. “Just as with a car, stuff goes wrong, and you need to do some kind of preventative maintenance work to make sure you get the life out of it,” Pizzey notes.
Generally, Acuren inspectors come in during plant shutdowns, when equipment is out of service so they can inspect for flaws. Each industry varies, but these shutdowns often take place once a year and anywhere from 40 to 120 of Acuren’s employees descend on the site, seeking out every defect and making sure they are corrected before the equipment is used again. If these faults are not discovered, the results can be disastrous—a failure can close a plant, which means lost production and lost revenues. “If you’re producing 200,000 barrels of oil a day, you can do the math; it’s big numbers,” Pizzey says.
But a failure can also bring harm to workers or the public: an industrial explosion can devastate large areas and pose serious harm to workers. Damage to the environment is also a concern. Add up these potential pitfalls and it’s clearly in a client’s interest to make sure its equipment is inspected thoroughly and often. Pizzey says most will have an inspection plan in place, which they submit to the government regulators and/or their insurance companies. But plans are not always set in stone, Pizzey notes. As a company we learn to deal effectively with chaos and change, Pizzey says. A regular job for Acuren is often a significant panic or concern for our clients. “Technology has allowed us to do more of the inspection work while the equipment is in service. This is creates a win for everyone—lower costs for our clients and steady work for our employees,” says Pizzey.
Acuren also conducts inspections on new construction projects, where they look at each component and each weld. Sometimes inspectors will even visit a shop that their client has subcontracted work to, in order to ensure employees are properly qualified and are following procedures and the plans they were given.
The careful act of balancing cost and thoroughness of inspections is “risk-based inspection.” Acuren acts as a consultant, but ultimately it is up to the owner of the operation to decide how long they will allow the inspectors to complete their work. The nature of the operation itself is also a factor. “Pulp and paper mills generally have very short outages because they don’t have much inventory capacity,” Pizzey explains. “They make paper and paper is big, so they can’t store enough paper to satisfy their customer’s needs sufficiently—so they don’t shut down for a month.” In that case, Acuren would send a large crew working days and nights in order for the job to be completed in four days.
An oil refinery, on the other hand, has a much larger storage capacity or may be working with another company on supply, so it can afford to shut down for a month. There is an inverse relationship between the amount of inspection done and the risk of failure, but, of course, lost revenues come into play. “You can inspect forever, and so someone has to make that decision on a risk profile,” Pizzey says. “Just like people make decisions about safety precautions on an airplane or a car—all these things have a risk element to them. We could improve safety by wearing helmets in the car but people choose a slight increase in risk for convenience.”
Investigating to prevent and explain failures
Pizzey likes to use a medical analogy to explain the kind of inspection techniques Acuren utilizes. “When you have a broken arm you go to the doctor and he or she does an X-ray or an ultrasound. We conduct those exact same inspections on materials—we do X-rays, we do ultrasounds, and we use magnetic methods.” These methods allow Acuren to spot flaws that don’t show up on the surface of components while being completely non-intrusive. “The same as a doctor doesn’t cut your arm off to see what’s wrong with it,” Pizzey notes.
Acuren also conducts failure investigations. When an incident occurs, such as a pipeline explosion or a tank leaks, the equipment is sent to Acuren’s lab, where experts put it through a forensic-type analysis to determine what went wrong. The detailed reports that result from these investigati-ons may be used for litigation or insurance purposes, says Pizzey, “but most of our failure work is directly for the owner because they just want to know what went wrong so they can prevent similar incidents in the future.” Acuren might then recommend a way to reduce the risk of the same failure reoccurring, such as suggesting that the company use a different metal alloy that can withstand a corrosive environment.
Weathering stormy seas
Pizzey speaks with confidence about Acuren’s financial situation in these rocky economic times. In Canada, the company has had a strong growth rate over the past 10 years—a sure indication of a healthy business. “Having said that, we’re very nervous about the economy and the effect that might have on our company,” Pizzey says. Since Acuren’s work is largely in maintenance of existing projects, rather than new construction, Pizzey says Acuren can count on business coming in, so long as our customers remain in business.
“We’ve seen in Canada it’s been pretty robust for many years,” Pizzey says, “but with the pulp and paper industry—there’s been a lot of mill closures in Canada in the last few years.” Operators are forced to make difficult decisions when budgets tighten. “In tough economic times some may push maintenance out. Others may curb replacement programs by increasing inspections with the idea of extending the asset life. They’re making tough decisions to reduce maintenance or capital spending,” Pizzey says.