Acceptable risk: A discussion with John-Paul Schmidt, Piping Stress Leader at Dow Chemical
Stainless Steel World Americas had the pleasure of speaking to John-Paul Schmidt, Piping Stress Leader at Dow Chemical, about working with clients to design projects, calculating risk, common challenges with equipment, as well as the best and most challenging aspects of the job.
Raised in the small chemical plant town of Mont Belvieu, Texas, where nearly every- one in town worked in the plant, John-Paul Schmidt was exposed to the industry at a young age, quickly discovering a passion for engineering and “creating something useful out of something worthless.” After obtaining his BSc in Chemical Engineering from Lamar University and an MBA with a focus on Project Management, Procurement and Project Finance from the University of Houston, Schmidt recently obtained his PE license—considered the highest standard of competence in the engineering profession.
Today, Schmidt works in a mechanical engineering capacity at Dow Chemical, but has prior experience working in a variety of roles in both capital and maintenance projects. After graduating during a down- turn in the market, Schmidt was able to use one of his hobbies, computer animation, as a jumping point into drafting, where he worked for several years before moving into a process engineering role, and then into piping engineering.
In his current role, Schmidt works out of the Dow Houston office, where he guides the day-to-day activities of a handful of designers and engineers, as well as co- ordinate their training and performance reviews. He also helps a variety of clients with capital and maintenance projects.
“The designers create a proposed design,” he explains, “and the pipe stress engineers review that design to make sure that the physics involved are safe. After the designer has proposed a routing, we check the thermal growth, the weight, and flow phenomena like transient flow, water hammer, flow-induced vibration, acoustically-induced vibration and all the different rigors that we put the pipes through to make sure that there are absolutely no unplanned events.”
Schmidt tells Stainless Steel World Americas, “unplanned events are unacceptable,” Dow plans to be safe, to protect the environment, to ensure the health of the community, and to make a profit. Hurricanes, ice, and other natural phenomena are no excuse to deviate from the plan.” It is up to Schmidt and his team to predict the risks associated with piping and to help the owner manage them.
Mr. John Schmidt
To make his calculations, Schmidt draws from a wealth of information already documented and known in the industry, taking the concepts of materials engineering and applying them to the industrial world. The risk of an earthquake, for example, can be calculated in several different ways, some of which are very complex, but the team is usually able to find a more simplified method, one in which the pipe is never pushed “to the ragged edge of danger.”
“In any business or engineering endeavor, we have to take risks,” explains Schmidt. “My goal is to take intelligent risks. For example, a designer will attempt to apply a design to a situation and I evaluate the risks associated with that design, in that situation, and of course I try to limit those as much as possible.”
“In some cases,” he continues, “with the accuracy of the calculations involved, it is better to err on the side of safety, say 20 percent or even 30 percent, as opposed to trying to save a few pennies and then shaving it down to a one to three percent mar- gin of error.”
Sometimes an owner’s consulting engineer will recommend an expensive solution to what they perceive of as a credible risk to the operating plan. When the owner disagrees with the proposal or the risk assessment, Schmidt’s team will be called in for a second opinion. Many times, the key conflict is on risk tolerance and deciding the best engineering model to apply to a design. Negotiating this conflict resolution can be challenging technically and socially.
“Schedule delays on large projects can mean large financing charges. Delaying a 300-million-dollar project six weeks costs three million at the company’s borrowing cost,” says Schmidt. “The capital costs can be huge but the time to market, and the cost of a deployed construction team not being productive, may surpass them.”
This is a picture of my current stress team in Houston. From Left to right: Scott Allen (PE), Si Vo, Ashok Patel, John Schmidt (PE).
Dow has a strong mentoring program focused on skill development, employee engagement and strengthening best practices. Mentorship programs are a long- term investment and can make a real difference in the dynamics of an organization, though not all companies in the industry embrace mentorship and knowledge transfer, which deepens the learning curve for new employees.
“At Dow, we are able to leverage the talent we have with our mentors,” explains Schmidt, “while mentees bring fresh ideas. The mentor-mentee relation- ship is effective in helping to accelerate the growth of the mentee and to provide unique insights for the mentor. It’s really a win-win situation.”
Another advantage of a mentor program, Schmidt points out, is that by train- ing mentees he is sometimes alerted to gaps in his own knowledge.
“I noticed, during training sessions with my mentees, I became more aware of what I didn’t know. It turned into an opportunity for me to learn new things and fill those gaps in my own understanding. I have definitely found that the best way to continuously learn and to find holes in an established process is to train somebody new.”
Schmidt himself was mentored by his predecessor, Scott Allen, who guided him into the world of pipe stress engineering.
“Being mentored helped me accelerate my own learning and expertise and gave me opportunities to succeed,” he says. “The sustainability of the industry as a whole depends on this relationship, and I believe that everyone must do their part.”
In his role, Schmidt works with a variety of equipment, including valves, pumps, expansion joints, and hoses.
While plant technicians generally take care of any hose issues, Schmidt is very hands-on with the company’s many expansion joints, which require a higher-level of technical expertise.
“With expansion joints, I get involved pretty quickly,” he says. “They can get quite complicated. Expansion joints are typically used in places where you are trying to isolate vibration, where there is some usual movement (like settlements), or where there is a delicate nozzle that needs to be taken care of. For example, we have a lot of glass-lined reactors at Dow Chemical, which are great for reducing corrosion or product contamination. These reactors have a glass nozzle, which is obviously quite delicate, so we often use expansion joints to protect those.”
He also works with many different types of pumps—including positive displacement and centripetal compressors—and says that one of the biggest challenges he sees in terms of safe pump installation has to do with the vendor. “If vendors don’t have a clear idea of the allowable load, that can make safe installation a challenge.”
He continues: “When installing the pump, I am interested in making sure that the forces on the inlet and outlet are low enough that it is going to work reliably. A pump that is getting too much force on its connections will suffer case deformation or coupling misalignment. If that happens, you are going to have difficulty getting that pump to work; you might have seals failing early and general reliability issues, which translate to downtime in your plant.”
As the group leader for process safety valve installation, Schmidt is also no stranger to relief devices, and spends a good deal of time working with pressure safety valves (PSVs), rupture discs and many other types. Generally, Schmidt is less concerned with the inner-working of the relief devices and more concerned with how they relate to the pipe assembly.
Other strategies for reducing the effects of fluid hammer pulses include accumulators, expansion tanks, surge tanks and pressure relief valves.
“My primary job is to make sure there are no unplanned events,” he adds, “to make sure the designs our designers create are safe. Fluid hammer is unpredictable, and we try to avoid it but if it is going to happen we want to be as safe as we can and put in extra support.”
The human factor
As the reader can imagine, coordinating a team of 18 engineers, consulting on capital projects, and providing on-site support is no easy feat. Of all his daily responsibilities, Schmidt says the most challenging are the human factors; understanding how to communicate with and align to the goals of his co-workers.
Coordinating people, training, and motivating them is an amazingly difficult thing to do in any profession, but Schmidt believes in the importance of counter- points; alternate points of view and people who will challenge our ideas and inspire us to work hard and make progress.
“I need my co-workers, even though sometimes it is difficult to deal with them,” he laughs. “But without people to challenge us, we stagnate.”
For Schmidt, the best parts of the job are the freedom to learn new technical information, and the opportunity to interact with peers, inside and out of the company. “I interact with ASME professionals and professors, read technical journals, etc. I have been given a lot of leeway to collect a vast sphere of knowledge and then apply it to real world problems, which is exciting and gratifying.”
One of his favorite experiences working with Dow was being called out to a job site at 2 o’clock in the morning on a Sunday.
“When I arrived, there was about a dozen very angry pipe fitters who had encountered an unforeseen problem with the design of a maintenance project. When I left two hours later they were smiling because they had a clear solution. Helping people find a solution to a problem is gratifying. The next morning, I had an encouraging email from the group leader waiting for me, which I still have pinned to my wall today.”
“I’m proud to say that I work for a safety-conscious company,” concludes Schmidt. “I admire this company and what it stands for. The employees can hold a capital project or maintenance operation if they feel that something is unsafe. Safety is our primary concern at Dow, but in an unplanned event we’re motivated to get the plant up and running or the project back on schedule.”