Todd Smith | K-State Bulk Solids Innovation Center
Project engineers are often asked to select vendors and work with them to install new equipment. These projects can have a long-lasting impact on the success of the company and the engineer’s career. This two-part article describes how to successfully work with an equipment vendor. Part I of this article provided suggestions, along with dos and don’ts, to help make choosing and working with a vendor successful. Part II explains the necessary project services that go along with building your system and describes how to choose a vendor.
In Part I of this article, we talked about the equipment part of a bulk solids handling project, but a project requires many services as well.
Project services that you’ll need
Project services you’ll need include equipment installation; site work, civil work, and foundations; equipment dismantling and rearrangement; layout and arrangement drawings; inspections or factory acceptance tests; system startup and commissioning; operator and process engineer training; and owner’s manuals and document sets. You can subcontract some of these services separately if you want, but other services should certainly be included in your primary equipment vendor’s scope of supply.
Installation: Other than the cost of the equipment itself, installation is probably the most expensive and important part of your project. If your equipment scope includes expensive, high-value equipment, such as a mixer and loss-in-weight feeders, then installation may account for only 25 percent of the equipment costs. But if you’re buying a lot of lower-cost equipment, such as a conveying system and storage vessels made of carbon steel, then the installation can run 50 to 70 percent of the equipment costs. It’s okay to buy the installation services separately from the equipment — especially if you have some experience managing projects and know a good local installer. But make sure your installer has experience with your project’s equipment type. On the other hand, many equipment suppliers will add installation to their scope if you ask them, which will make it easier for you and will reduce your risk of an incorrect installation since they know what they’re doing and will take the entire responsibility. But the system supplier’s installation may cost 15 percent more than buying it from a dedicated local installer. Finally, if you do what you can to make the installation simple, you’ll get a better price. That’s because if the installation has uncertainty or looks difficult, then any installer will charge more or ask to do it on a time and material (T&M) basis rather than a fixed cost.
Site work, civil work, and foundations: Site and civil work includes grading, excavating, soil testing, pouring concrete, building roads and accessways, and the like. Equipment suppliers aren’t typically experienced with this type of work, so you’re usually better off if you buy these services from a local construction company. They’ll also know local soil conditions and how to manage local permits and paperwork. You’ll need to get loading information from the equipment supplier and give it to the engineer who will design the foundations to ensure that they’ll be able to support the equipment loads.
Dismantling and rearrangement: Equipment dismantling and rearrangement (D&R) entails removing any old equipment or rearranging your equipment setup before installing new items. If you have to do this, it’ll cost you. It’s difficult for installation companies to estimate the cost; therefore, they’ll often want to bid it on a T&M basis rather than setting a fixed price.
Layout and arrangement drawings: If you’re working on a new site or if your plant has good layout drawings, then you’ll want to keep the drawings accurate and up-to-date. Updating the drawings means you’ll incur the additional cost for someone to place the new equipment in the drawings. If they’re capable, you can add this service to the equipment supplier’s scope. Alternately, if you hire a local engineering company, make sure they have experience with industrial process work. Solids or 3D modeling is best to make sure there are no interferences. Don’t forget to include access for equipment maintenance and clearance to get equipment in and out. Be sure to route critical items first. For example, pneumatic conveying piping and dust collection ducting should be straight whenever possible — lay them out first, then add the utilities or services, such as water piping or electrical conduit. Also, if your project includes explosion protection or venting, remember that ducting design and location within the plant can affect explosion venting design and safety. So be sure to discuss location with your equipment supplier if explosion venting of any kind will be part of your project.
Inspections or factory acceptance tests: Your vendor shouldn’t charge a fee if you want to visit them or inspect the documentation or equipment before it ships. Asking your vendor to perform a factory acceptance test verifying that your equipment is built and operating according to design specs is a reasonable request. However, if you want any testing of your actual equipment, then don’t be surprised if they add a hefty fee. It takes a lot of work for them to disrupt their normal production process, dedicate space, set up the equipment, connect utilities, and run the equipment. Because of the lower expense, factory inspections are much more common than factory testing.
Startup and commissioning: Make sure system startup and commissioning are included in the equipment supplier’s scope. Even if someone else does the installation, the equipment vendor should verify the installation and make sure everything is okay prior to startup. The startup technician will make sure each component has oil or grease, all motors are turning in the correct direction, and all belts or chains have the right tension. If motor speeds or other setup parameters need to be programmed, then it should be the vendor’s responsibility, but ask them to explain what they have done and why. When it’s time to press the start button, the vendor will first want to make a dry run without any solids or fluids in the process. Then, they’ll add material and make test runs before bringing the system up to speed and handing it over to you, the owner.
Operator and process engineer training: Make operator and process engineer training part of the vendor’s scope. Put training on the schedule for both the vendor and your personnel; otherwise, it might be pushed off until the end of the commissioning trip when everyone is in a rush before they leave. Rushed training is a recipe for many kinds of preventable failures and mishaps.
Owner’s manuals and document sets: Another item that must also be included in the vendor’s scope is the owner’s manuals and document sets. Before you place the order, ask to see an example of what they’ll provide. Some manuals are very difficult to navigate. In contrast, system manuals that are well organized will show the entire system, with electronic links to the specific part you want to see. You should be able to focus on any component in the manual and easily find dimensional drawings, electrical or service requirements, installation instructions, maintenance guidelines, and exploded parts drawings with part numbers.
Factors to consider when choosing your vendor
There are many factors to consider when choosing an equipment vendor. Price, of course, is an important factor. But comparing prices from various vendors is challenging, especially if their approaches aren’t identical. First, make a checklist or spreadsheet that includes everything you want in your system, using this article as a guide. Then, carefully read each vendor’s proposal to find out what has or hasn’t been included. If something isn’t specifically included in the bid, then you should assume it has been left out. If you want to make a fair comparison, ask the vendor for an optional price adder or get the price from a separate entity and add it yourself.
But other factors should carry as much weight as price in your vendor selection. Most importantly, will the system work well and will it meet the goals you set in the beginning? Paying more money is worth it if you know that it’ll operate reliably. How do you know if a system will work well without purchasing and implementing it? Make sure the vendor has a track record of experience with your type of material and application. Ask for references and examples of similar projects. Ask if you can go visit or talk to personnel at other plants where their equipment is operating. You probably won’t get in to see a competitor’s plant, but perhaps you can get backdoor information if you or your colleagues know them through trade associations or other networking opportunities. Furthermore, you can ask your vendor for references in which the equipment has been installed at plants that aren’t competitors, perhaps even in a different market or handling different materials.
Also, be sure to understand the vendor’s personnel and how they’ll be organized to handle your project. In the beginning, you’ll probably be communicating with a local agent and perhaps a corporate sales application engineer. But after the order has been placed, your project will likely be handed off from the sales department to one of the vendor’s project engineers. Ask whom you’ll be working with, get specific names if possible, and meet them. Unfortunately, you shouldn’t assume that the new person will understand your needs, and you should plan to re-explain all your goals and constraints to your new contact. You should get assurance, up front, that this person will be your liaison for the life of the project — you don’t want to go through it all again with someone else. Also, be aware that you’ll probably work with another person for the startup and yet another when it’s time to buy spare parts.
Following these guidelines will help you find the right vendor and achieve project success. See the sidebar “Tips for project success” to help get you started on the right foot. A successful project is one that is completed on time and within budget, resulting in equipment and systems that work well. Don’t rely on penalty clauses in the contract — they mean you failed to find the right partner. Do give the vendors all the information they need, then clarify that equipment and system performance are their responsibility. In the long run, you’ll be most successful when you and your equipment vendor form a partnership. Ideally, you want them to make money and be successful, and they should be doing everything possible to help you be more profitable and successful as well.
Tips for project success
Anytime you take on a big project that’s going to cost you time and money, you want to make the most of your efforts. Use the following tips to ensure a successful project.
1. Get educated. Powder and bulk solids handling and processing isn’t taught in most colleges. To learn about it, you can attend an education course, read articles, and do some research online. Learn which material properties are important and why. Learn about equipment technology options so that you can speak intelligently with the vendor and ask the right questions.
2. Think about your project goals. Answer the questions “Why are you doing this project?” and “What are the main things you want to achieve?” Share that information with your vendor!
3. Think about limitations. Do you have product quality specs that must be met, such as particle size, composition, or mixing and segregation? Does your operation have minimum downtime allowances or cycle time limits for batch processes? Will equipment need to fit through doors or between other equipment? Are you required to meet emission limits to comply with EPA permits? What about noise-level or hygiene concerns or cross-contamination limits?
4. Consider multiple vendors. Early on, work with two or three possible vendors. Don’t focus on just one. Choose vendors who have experience that’s relevant to the material in your application. Ask for references or proof of relevant experience.
5. Know your material’s properties. Most performance problems occur because material properties weren’t properly understood. This is especially true as material changes throughout the process and passes from one piece of equipment to the next. If you or your equipment supplier don’t understand this aspect, then get advice.
Part I of this article provides suggestions, along with dos and don’ts, to help make choosing and working with a vendor successful.
For further reading
Todd Smith is the business and strategy manager for Kansas State University’s (K-State’s) Bulk Solids Innovation Center. The Center’s focus is to help industry with education, material testing, and project consulting for powder and bulk solids handling. He has spent more than 35 years in the bulk solids industry working in a variety of engineering and management positions. He has a mechanical engineering degree from K-State and an MBA from Kansas Wesleyan University.
K-State Bulk Solids Innovation Center • Salina, KS
785-404-4918 • https://bulk-solids.k-state.edu
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