Employee Safety Worth the Investment

Automated tube-lancing systems remove employees from harm’s way and enhance customer service during time-critical plant shutdowns.

Employee Safety Worth the Investment

The automated tube-cleaning systems made by NLB Corp. place operators roughly 10 feet off the ground in climate-controlled cabs, totally removed from the operation of lances that inject water at up to 20,000 psi and 20 gpm.

Employee safety is a paramount concern at PSC Industrial Services. In recent years, officials at the Houston-based firm have taken an even more stringent approach to worker safety by investing more than $4 million in ATL-5000 and ATL-5015 automated tube-cleaning systems, made by NLB Corp.

Hydroblasting is a highly effective way to clean industrial equipment, but it is an inherently high-risk activity. “A lot of bad things can happen,” says Brad Clark, chief executive officer for PSC, a provider of specialty maintenance services to the energy industry, employing 3,000 people and serving customers throughout the U.S. “The safety of our workers is more important than any activity, and it is incumbent on PSC leadership to ensure that our team is equipped with the safest and most modern equipment in the industry.”

The NLB units are used to clean heat exchangers, which consist of bundles of metal tubes that help things such as chemicals, water, gases and other materials flowing at safe operating temperatures as they’re processed at petrochemical plants and refineries. A heat exchanger bundle might include anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of tubes, typically 3/4 inch in diameter and 20 to 25 feet long, Clark says.

To run an ATL-5015, an employee sits roughly 10 feet off the ground in a climate-controlled cab, totally removed from the operation of lances that inject streams of water at pressure up to 20,000 psi and flow as high as 20 gpm. The cab’s elevation also maximizes the field of view for operators, further enhancing safety.

“Everything is joystick-controlled,” Clark says. “With automated equipment, the operator is moved well away from the line of fire. With the continued development of new technologies, nearly all manual approaches can be replaced with automated means, where the operator works from a safe distance. Safety is such a critical piece of what we do and we are therefore committed to removing workers from harm’s way by performing all industrial hydroblasting using state-of-the-art automated equipment and technology.”

The units feature five hydraulically powered lances that can be programmed for different “stroke” lengths, depending on how long the tubes are, and for different speeds. The speed at which the lances penetrate the tubes is critical; if it’s too fast, cleaning isn’t as effective, and if it’s too slow, the high-pressure water stream can damage the tubes.

“There’s a fine line between cleaning well and damaging or degrading the tubes,” Clark explains. “If you leave a lance in one place too long, a 20,000 psi water jet can cut through metal. As such, we strive to get a very consistent, quality clean from the first tube to the last.”

In addition, a properly cleaned tube is paramount for the process of nondestructive testing, which inspects for deterioration and degradation of the metal tubes, he adds. Moreover, properly cleaning is critical to maximizing the heat-transfer abilities of the tubes, which in turn optimizes plants’ operating efficiencies. A good comparison is a car radiator, which works more effectively when clean, Clark points out.

Cleaning the tubes is a tough task. In refineries, for example, some processes leave behind crude deposits — a heavy, tar-like material. When refineries shut down for planned maintenance, the deposit cools and becomes almost asphalt-like in consistency. “It’s quite hard and can be very sticky and messy,” he notes. “Sometimes the tubes are half clogged or even totally clogged. It’s very difficult to remove.”

The fact that the ATL-5000s and -5015s have five lances makes them roughly five times more productive than the manually operated single-lance machines PSC used in the past. More importantly, operators are comfortable and out of harm’s way, which makes it easier to recruit quality employees.

“Hydroblasting (manually) at a refinery is not a fun activity to do out in the weather,” Clark explains. “But with the ATLs, now you’re sitting in a climate-controlled cab, out of the weather. Plus, you’re using a piece of sophisticated equipment … you’re using your brain, not your back. And you don’t feel like you were riding a bull all day, which is what it felt like if you were doing it by hand.”

The ATLs have also proven to be durable and reliable, which are critical factors during plant shutdown, where every minute counts. At a typical plant, there might be hundreds of bundles to clean, inspect and put back in service as quickly as possible — without compromising quality. The last thing a customer wants is tubes that must be cleaned twice in order to pass inspection. 

“Plant turnarounds are very complex logistical operations, with several moving parts and when things get interrupted, it’s bad,” Clark says.

NLB is more than just an equipment supplier to PSC, he adds. The manufacturer is also a strategic business partner and valuable resource that provides great engineering and technical support, and reacts to feedback on issues such as employee safety. In fact, the ATL-5015 — the next-generation version of the ATL-5000, features innovations that resulted from collaboration between PSC and NLB, he says.

“They’re very important tools for our company and are highly valued by our customers,” Clark says. “They provide a very solid return on investment — which is why we’ve bought 15 of them — and will continue to do so. Moreover, they’re a pivotal part of our overall strategy to remove workers from harm’s way with automated equipment.”


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