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RFID Helps Refinery Project Manage Materials for Multiple Contractors

North West Redwater Partnership is using a materials-management solution that allows construction contractors to manage their own materials and NWR managers to oversee the process.
By Michael Belfiore
Aug 23, 2015

The North West Redwater Partnership (NWR) Sturgeon refinery project, being built in Alberta, Canada, promises to be one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in the world. Gasification technology, selected by NWR as an integral part of its refining process, will enable it to produce CO2 along with diesel fuel and other products. The CO2 will be pumped into old or marginally productive oil reservoirs by a third party to recover light oil that would have otherwise gone untouched—permanently sequestering the CO2 in the process. NWR—jointly owned by North West Upgrading and Canadian Natural Upgrading—says this process yields environmental benefits. It estimates the 1.2 million tons of CO2 that phase one will capture every year is equivalent to taking nearly 300,000 cars off our roads. NWR has regulatory approval for three phases totaling 150,000 barrels a day of bitumen processing capacity, but only the first phase is sanctioned for construction at this time, and is scheduled for completion in September 2017.

Plans for building the advanced refinery involved five major contractors and a number of subcontractors purchasing, fabricating, delivering, staging, assembling and finally installing tens of thousands of unique sections of pipe and other parts. Before Victor Mah joined the project as manager of supply-chain operations in April 2014, the plan called for consolidating incoming materials at a central warehouse. This meant NWR would have to reissue materials and equipment back to the contractors when it came time to pick for fabrication or installation.

A 3D model of the site
Mah and his colleagues realized that while centralized control of materials offered greater oversight, it would also create a potential bottleneck as multiple contractors attempted to retrieve materials from the warehouse at the same time. The team believed a better and less risky approach would be to keep the contractors responsible for their own materials throughout the fabrication, storage and construction process.

"What was recognized is that NWR needed a materials-management system for its own requirements, but also a system that provided some visibility over the contractors' materials-management program," Mah says. "Contractors have a wide, high degree of variability in their materials-management capability and discipline." In other words, some do it better than others.

In August 2014, NWR enacted a new materials-management strategy and adopted an active RFID-based materials-management system from Atlas RFID Solutions that, according to Mah, enhances the contractors' existing materials-management programs. The Atlas solution also provides centralized visibility, so NWR can monitor all materials-management activities. The RFID solution saves money, he explains, by reducing the amount of time workers spend searching for and managing materials, as well as by reducing the number of lost materials that must to be reordered.

Getting Buy-In
RFID technology was an obvious solution for Mah, who was familiar with Atlas RFID from working on a previous oil sands project (see RFID Helps Fuel an Oil Boom). From his point of view, RFID meant the difference between spending hours or even days manually hunting for parts in acres of laydown yards that could be blanketed with snow, and locating parts almost immediately. "There's a huge benefit to tagging material," Mah states. "RFID tagging technology can take you within 18 inches of a given item." And he knew RFID could also provide the centralized visibility that NWR needed.

But to get RFID materials management in place, Mah had to obtain buy-in from senior project managers. These included the project directors responsible for the different areas of the refinery, the VP of supply chain management, the senior VP for engineering construction and, ultimately, NWR's president. As part of the evaluation process, which included one other potential vendor, Mah had Atlas present a detailed proposal, which ultimately received the green light.

In May 2014, NWR brought materials-management expert David Beaton on board to help guide the process of implementing the RFID solution. "While I initiated and formalized the overarching materials-management strategy for NWR," Mah says, "it was Beaton, as manager of materials for NWR, who developed and continues to refine the program in the field as activities continues to evolve." A year later, NWR hired materials-management database specialist Sonny Velasco to oversee the optimization of the data flow from the contractors into the materials-management system.

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