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The Current and Evolving Role of Field Service Organizations in Planning Outages

Robert Rapier

Successfully managing a maintenance outage has a lot of moving parts. Here's a look at current field service best practices and future possibilities.

A successful maintenance outage requires significant planning, deployment of the appropriate personnel, and management of the critical path items, so the outage is completed on schedule. From the earliest stages, the field service organization works in close partnership with the power plant manager.

About 18 months before an outage, the field service organization and plant manager define the scope of the outage, identify the necessary long-lead parts, and set the schedule. The plant manager needs to determine the outage's critical path, so the plant isn't idled any longer than necessary and other contractors may come in during the outage.

One year to six months before the outage, activity picks up. Parts are ordered and a detailed schedule is developed. The plant manager works with the field service organization to determine the types of technicians and craft that will be needed for the job. In some cases, the plant manager may request a specific crew or supervisor that did a particularly good job in the past.

The Field Service Team's Current Role

On the field service side, the team goes through a checklist to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. A failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) is conducted to identify things that could go wrong, and recommendations are made to mitigate risks.

During the outage, the power plant (or the affected area of the plant) is shut down, and the team is deployed to the site for anywhere from one to six weeks, commensurate with the scope of the major maintenance. This team may consist of 10–12 people per shift who take apart the gas or steam turbine, inspect it, install new parts, and reassemble the turbine. At the conclusion of the job, the team then moves on to the next job.

The Team's Keys to a Successful Outage

During an outage, the priorities or imperatives of the team are as follows:

  • Safety: This is the number-one priority, so no one gets hurt.
  • Quality: The expertise of the outage crew is crucial in the overall workmanship and execution of the outage.
  • Schedule: The outage is completed on time or ahead of schedule.
  • Budget: The outage is completed at or below budget.
  • Materials: Parts, tools, and other consumables arrive at the site in advance of the outage.
  • Proactive project management: Any unexpected or extra work is quickly identified with an immediate action plan if it impacts the critical path of the outage.
  • Coming online on time: The plant restarts after the outage without any issues or rework required.
  • Communications: Frequent daily communications and collaboration between the customer power plant site team and the outage team are critical. Everyone needs to understand the daily priorities, activities, and issues to ensure that everything is on track as planned.

A Shift in Scheduling: The Impact of Renewables

The emergence of renewables has affected some maintenance schedules. As renewables take away operating time from coal, nuclear, and natural gas plants, those plants run a lot less. There are two potential impacts from that. First, a baseload plant that is running below capacity can extend maintenance intervals because the plants don't run as much.

Second, some fossil-fueled plants are transitioning to become peaking plants that cycle twice a day. Because these plants start up and shut down more frequently, they may require increased maintenance. It's analogous to a car that experiences primarily highway mileage transitioning to city mileage with lots of starts and stops. This requires different kinds of maintenance. These peaking plants could accelerate their maintenance intervals due to frequent cycling, so teams have to be prepared to adapt.

Collaboration and Personnel Sharing Model May Emerge

In a typical power plant, there are maintenance technicians at the site who perform routine maintenance. For more specialized outages, there are craft or technicians scattered around the country. One possible future scenario is to utilize a collaborative consumption model to request a particular skill set.

In that case, maintenance staffing at the plant could be evaluated, and there could be an app (imagine something similar to a ride-sharing app) that summons local, shared maintenance personnel as needed. Instead of a plant carrying a full maintenance staff, they could request three locally available mechanics for routine maintenance on a given day. This would require familiarity with the site and other protocols, but the concept and digital applications are available. As the Green Journal points out, the sharing economy is already making its way into the energy industry in the UK.

Executing a successful outage requires advance planning and close coordination between plant management and the field service organization. This will continue to be the case in the future, but increasing penetration of renewables into the power grid will likely impact the timing of these outages and the type of work that will be required. Ultimately, the industry may move in the direction of a collaborative consumption model of shared maintenance personnel.

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