The Top Ten Ways to Get the Best Pilot Plant for Your Buck
By Richard Palluzi
Pilot plants are inherently expensive and time consuming; organizations
are always looking for ways to reduce their costs and installation
schedule. Here are some of the best ways to make your next pilot
plant project the most efficient, effective, fastest, and least costly.
- Define your program goals in adequate detail before starting. Make
sure that it includes your objectives for the unit and prioritize
them. Document the objectives clearly and review the document with all
interested parties to make sure everyone is aligned. When everyone is
not aligned, people tend to push the designer in competing directions,
needlessly complicating the design and increasing the potential for
rework later in the design process.
- Look carefully at all alternatives to new construction as this
will always be the costliest and take the most time. Common options
that might be available include repurposing an existing unit,
modifying an existing unit, or contracting out elements of the program
to schools or outside research organizations. In some cases, even if
the option is available, it may be costlier, more time consuming, or
just not the right answer, but an effort should be made to make sure
that nothing else that might be advantageous is overlooked.
- Identify all the key issues and requirements to meet the program
objectives. Make sure that the pilot plant design addresses all of
these requirements. Review the final design for elements that do not
contribute to meeting these key requirements and consider their
elimination to simplify the design and operation and potentially
reduce the cost and schedule.
- Make a preliminary or scoping cost estimate and schedule early to
identify if there is a gross mismatch between expectations and
resources. If there is, then secure additional resources (budget,
schedule, people, etc.) or cancel the unit. There is no incentive to
waste limited resources on a program that cannot be funded.
- Develop a detailed design basis for the proposed unit and
circulate it to all interested parties to make sure that it addresses
all the key requirements and also all of their concerns. It also
forces everyone to reach agreement on numerous small points early and
so avoid rework later. This is also useful in identifying any needs
that have been missed and desires which are not critical that have
crept into the design.
- Make sure you try and get the most experienced pilot plant
designer available for the design. Not only will they usually be
faster and produce a better design, but they will also be better able
to identify and address potential problem areas. They are also more
likely to challenge preconceived ideas and suggest less expensive or
- Arrange for a cold eyes review of the proposed design by an
experienced pilot plant designer. This is more important when the
primary designer is less experienced. A cold eyes review allows a
broader view of the final proposed design before too much is
committed. It also can identify weak areas in the design, riskier
approaches, or blind spots.
- Evaluate the design for potential problems and develop fallback
positions. The decision to pre-invest in any of these fallbacks is
always difficult. Having a plan, however, lets you more critically
evaluate if the extra expenditures now are worth the potential savings
later if something goes wrong. Many will turn out to be relatively
inexpensive and worth doing.
- Perform a detailed review of the design for startup problems. This
allows you to modify the design to avoid identified startup issues and
can save significant time and effort later. Develop a detailed start
up plan listing all the necessary steps in adequate detail to allow
identifying the resources required and estimated duration. This always
helps to both manage expectations and allow the commissioning process
to go faster and more efficiently.
- Develop a realistic final cost estimate and schedule for the unit.
It will often be different from the preliminary estimate, particularly
if the original estimator is inexperienced in pilot plants, or if the
design has been forced to evolve in directions different from
envisioned at the time of the first estimate. This allows a final
review as to whether or not the unit should progress or if the
program, design, or schedule needs to be modified to accept more
limited funding. While it’s not the most efficient time to realize you
have a budget gap, it is significantly less risky than progressing the
project and recognizing the issue at a later stage.
For further information on ways to make your next pilot plant more of a
success, here are some other references.
Developing Screening Estimates, R.P. Palluzi,
Chemical Engineering Progress, July, 2011
Consider Modular Pilot Plant Construction,
R.P. Palluzi, Chemical Processing, February, 2010
But What Will It Cost? The Keys to Success in Pilot
Plant Cost Estimating, R.P. Palluzi, Chemical Engineering,
November, 2005, December, 2005 and January, 2006
Cost Effective Pilot Plant Design and Construction,
R.P. Palluzi, Chemical Engineering, April, 2000
Succeed at Crash Pilot Plant Construction,
R.P. Palluzi, Chemical Engineering Progress, December, 1997
Pilot Plants: Design, Construction and Operation,
R.P. Palluzi, McGraw-Hill, February, 1992