Sponsored by CIGNA
Shell Lubricants Centre
Activity: Manufacture of lubricating oil
Task: Blending and packing of lubricating oils for retail outlets and workshops
Size: 130 employees
Outstanding Features: Automation, process design, process control and monitoring, safety.
Vehicles don't consume as much oil as they once did, and neither does manufacturing industry. Lubricant manufacturers still lament the demise of major customers such as the Ravenscraig steelworks, which reportedly bought 1,000 tonnes of lubricating oil a year. British Coal, another once big consumer, is now a shadow of its former self. The complete or virtual elimination of of such large users has had a major impact on lubricant manufacturers, explains David Fletcher, operations manager at Shell UK's lubricants centre at Stanlow on the Wirral. As their markets have contracted, the producers have had to take some tough decisions.
The Stanlow plant - as benchmarking comparisons confirm - was better placed than many others in Europe, with a cost per tonne at the lower end of the range. Other plants have struggled to survive: Stanlow's objective is to secure the 35-40% return on capital demanded by Shell. Only eight years old, it is 'one of the most advanced and modern lubricant plants in Europe if not in the world', and still benefits from decisions made at the design stage.
The factory's strength lies in its ability to blend, to a very tight specification, a wide range of oils for almost every conceivable application. But it is not only a well-ordered modern process plant, it is also - in part - a customer-responsive packaging operation with slick filling lines churning out products for the high street. It produces some 220 different oils which it packs into over 2,000 different types of container - ranging from half-litre plastic bottles for display on the forecourt up to 209-litre drums.
Virtually every stage is computer-controlled. From the initial receipt of base oils, through blending and the mixing of additives and on to the 10,240 pallet-space automated warehouse, human beings have little more than a monitoring role. 'We have 10,000 control loops out there, the same as a medium-sized refinery,' says Fletcher. Automatic guided vehicles shuttle back and forth bearing batches of oil to the load cells which hold the secret of the plant's tight blending accuracy: so accurate that, in spite of increasingly rigorous specifications, it has been possible to cut the number of laboratory analyses by as much as one-third, to 8,000 per month.
Transfer lines within the plant are common rather than dedicated. Yet in view of the wide range of end uses, contamination with, for example, the wrong additive must be avoided at all costs. (About 30% of a top-specification oil may consist of additives, of which there are some 170 in regular use.) Cleaning is carried out by rubber 'pigs' which are forced through the pipes by compressed air. The pigs, each with a life of 3,000 kilometres of pipe travel, demand that particular attention be paid to welding, and to gradual bends, in the event of modification. Statistical process control is equally meticulous, and monitors not merely that something happens, but whether it happened within the expected time. 'This plant relies on 10,000 valves opening and closing when required,' says Fletcher.
In its approach to safety, the plant is one of the most thorough that the judges have seen. 'There is a risk assessment on every task, even window cleaning,' Fletcher points out. Every accident is carefully analysed to prevent a repetition. All ladders are date-coded, and no ladder over five feet high is permitted. Injuries per million man hours have fallen from 48.8 in 1990 to 14.7 last year.
Although highly automated when it was first commissioned, the factory's costs were further reduced by delayering exercises in 1991 and 1993 which together eliminated half the workforce. Unions were derecognised and six grades of operative were cut to two. The entire distribution operation has been outsourced, leading to the closure of 10 warehouses. Yet Fletcher believes personnel costs can be reduced still further. Reductions in headcount have the particular advantage of reducing accidents, he points out.
Process Industry Award
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