Knowledge Management at Pellet Plants

One challenge the industry faces today is that the knowledge that has been acquired over several decades is about to get lost with the first generation of managers, operators and service engineers.
By Holger Streetz | February 05, 2019

Wood pelleting roots go back to the 1970s when the oil crisis began, but not on an industrial scale until much later. One challenge the industry faces today is that the knowledge that has been acquired over several decades is about to get lost with the first generation of managers, operators and service engineers. How do we address this issue?

Pinnacle Renewable Energy opened its first pellet plant in 1989 in Quesnel, British Columbia, with three pelletizers. In 2004, its Williams Lake facility was commissioned, and U.S. pellet manufacturer Enviva was established. Georgia Biomass began operations in April 2011. All of this means that industrial-scale wood pellet production—plants with capacities greater than 100,000 metric tons annually—moved beyond infancy, and sufficient experience has been gathered (often, the difficult and expensive way). Now, the industry is already facing the next issue: the knowledge drain. The people who started the wood pellet industry are now at an age where they are about to retire, taking all the valuable information with them to Florida, Arizona or the Bahamas.

Although equipment manufacturers were able to turn experience into better and more reliable products, there is still a great need to capture the logic used to successfully solve a problem and make it accessible to others with similar issues. Standardized incident and repair reports help in building a knowledge data base.

An example failure report of a main shaft issue could include an assessment of what exactly went wrong. The questions to ask should gather information about machine noise and power consumption operating with and without product, bearing clearance, leakages and impurities (of course a pellet mill is dirty inside, but here I mean where they should not be). Then, the operator should remove the main shaft and check seals for age-hardening, cracks, dust and impurities. If this solves the issue, they should reassemble the main shaft and restart the pellet mill without die and rollers to check correctness. If this does not solve the problem, the operator needs to explore the problem further, best with their OEM or a service company. A report that includes all abnormalities and all causes of the failure should be written, and photos included. If necessary, the premature worn or broken parts should be analyzed, and the results included in the report. By documenting all major failures in these reports, operators build a database of solutions for the future. One possibility to depict the reports is a mind map, a diagram that illustrates tasks, concepts or items and shows relationships between the pieces of the whole (See Figure 1).

Other knowledge-capturing techniques include action protocols, data capturing with sensors, brainstorming and concept mapping. A third person observes, interprets and records an action protocol expert solving problems. This is similar to the standardized reports, but requires a trained third person to literally look over the shoulder at the right times. While valuable, having these resources available is expensive, and may not be feasible. Another tool is big data, which can help improve preventative maintenance measures. Data on vibrations and temperatures can widen the picture on wear, and in the future, these data can help forecast equipment’s end of life.

Brainstorming is an unstructured, consensus-based approach to generating ideas about a certain problem. This approach involves multiple experts that consider all possible solutions. It is time-consuming and limited to a certain problem. Since it is a theoretical approach, it does not necessarily lead to suitable solutions. However, it can help discover solutions when repairs are in progress and existing attempts do not lead to a fix. Concept mapping links ideas to a network and is an effective approach to illustrate possible failure roots. Concept mapping takes into account that a failure can be caused by several reasons that are not obviously linked to the failure.

Whatever approach operators choose, they should be sure to review the process from time to time. A good opportunity to check the comprehensibility of the knowledge-capturing system arises when new staff members come on board.

Author: Holger Streetz
International Operations Manager, Bathan AG