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Preparation is everything

June 2, 2015

When Air Liquide undertakes preventive maintenance measures, every single little detail is carefully coordinated, checked and then rechecked.

About Air Liquide Founded in 1902, Air Liquide produces industrial gases used in the medical, chemical, and electronicsindustries. Oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen are Air Liquide’s primary gas products. After production, the company packages and distributes the gases for use by customers. Headquartered in Paris, France, Air Liquide employs more than 46 000 people in more than 80 countries. In 2011, the company generated more than EUR 14 billion in revenue. Air Liquide Portugal was establishedin 1923 and currently serves over 35 000 customers.

It’s a chilly, quiet November afternoon in the Portuguese municipality of Estarreja, but the local Air Liquide chemical plant is buzzing with activity. Plant Manager Luis Ferreira and his team are undertaking preventive maintenance – or, as they call it, a “turnaround.” The process involves shutting down the plant for 33 days, but it ensures that one of its most essential machines, a centrifugal gas compressor supplied by Atlas Copco, keeps operating smoothly.

Smooth operation is key in any industry, but Air Liquide Portugal is a special case. The company has been operating in Estarreja on North Portugal’s Silver Coast since 1923. It shares the site with facilities from domestic chemicals maker Companhia União Fabril (CUF) and global giant Dow Chemical.

The three companies aren’t merely neighbours – they’re business partners. In 2009, Air Liquide started a third Estarreja chemical plant, home of the Atlas Copco gas compressor, after a major deal that committed all three companies to expanding their operations.

Air Liquide’s Estarreja chemical plants produce carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen, which CUF and Dow then process to produce a variety of chemicals. The slightest technical problem or downtime in Air Liquide’s operations would impact its neighbors, who depend on the company’s gas products. Atlas Copco’s compressor at the heart of the plant is one of the most essential links in the long production chain. With the compressor’s support, Air Liquide supplies CO for Dow Chemical’s production of methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, better known as MDI.

This organic compound is then used to make polyurethane, a substance used in everything from glues, flooring and car seats to skateboard wheels. The main feedstock for MDI is the compound aniline, which CUF creates using hydrogen from Air Liquide. For this complex interplay of production processes to work perfectly, preventive maintenance has to be scheduled carefully. A turnaround is performed about every two years, and the one that Ferreira and his team conducted in late 2011 was the first at this plant.

During the preparation time, spare parts are ordered and delivered, and every detail of the turnaround schedule is coordinated, checked, and rechecked. If a single part or detail is missing, it means a huge loss of time – and money – for Air Liquide and its customers.

The equipment that was shut down for inspection and maintenance included the Atlas Copco compressor. For three weeks, the Atlas Copco team disassembled its dry seals, inspected inlet and outlet piping, and checked safety valves – all essential measures because CO is a hazardous gas that can’t be released into the atmosphere.

Although the actual turnaround process only lasts about a month, the months beforehand are even busier for Ferreira. “The turnaround means about six months of planning and preparation,” Ferreira says. “In preparation for this maintenance initiative, we had a very good and close collaboration with Atlas Copco’s team.”

“The Atlas Copco team integrated very well into our team, performed all its work on time, and brought great experience to the table,” Ferreira says. “We are very satisfied.”

Air Liquide supplies carbon monoxide for production of MDI. This is used to make polyurethane, a substance used in everything from glues, flooring and car seats to skateboard wheels.

“In preparation for this maintenance initiative, we had a very good and close collaboration with Atlas Copco.” Luis Ferreira, Air Liquide Plant Manager

Chemical and petrochemical Portugal Europe Maintenance Centrifugal gas compressor