BFAU training is standard for some companies

By Timothy Charles Holmseth | June 02, 2008
Web exclusive posted June 11, 2008 at 4:44 p.m. CST

The most recent session of the Performance Plus Ethanol Maintenance Training program at BioFuels Automation University in Plymouth, Minn., was completed last week with all of the seats filled during the two-day course designed to educate ethanol plant maintenance technicians how to achieve maximum plant efficiency.

The program, which is now in its second year, is recognized throughout the industry as a solid investment - with some companies sending all of their employees as a matter of practice. Jon Logterman, maintenance manager at Western Wisconsin Energy, attended the training for the second time. Logterman said Western Wisconsin Energy has sent all six of their technicians to the training. "What you run into in the industry, [and what we encountered at] our plant specifically, is there wasn't anyone who has any ethanol experience," he said. "A lot of this is new, so that's why we keep sending them out for more training, to get them more self-sufficient on understanding the equipment. We've been sending two [technicians] to every session."

The first day of the course details the intricate dynamics of the system that circulates through an ethanol plant, such as flow, temperature, pressure, level, and electro-chemical measurements. The second day focuses on valves, monitors, positioners, communication protocols, and tools. Sidney Sondag, general manager at BFAU, said the education holds a value that equals dollars in the end for companies. "Too much time is spent at plants trying to throw different parts at the problem to see if it fixes it," he said.

Logterman said a great advantage to working with BFAU and its parent company, Swanson Flo-Systems, is the relationship that develops and eliminates barriers that can make things cumbersome. When something goes wrong, nobody really likes to do "cold calls," he said, explaining that a person can be inclined to not want to pick up the phone and call a stranger. "That's why some of the employees are like, let's throw some parts at it, before picking up the phone," he said. A high level of comfort in the relationship changes a lot, he noted.

Hans Alwin, marketing director at BFAU, said maintenance is a "profit center" and the primary goal of a plant should be "no unexpected shut-downs." A well-trained technician can achieve that goal, he added, and they are becoming more and more valuable and in demand. "[There's a lot of] turnover within the industry," Logterman said. "[There's a lot] of employees going to other ethanol plants, so you're always training employees."

Doug Diny, who works in business development at BFAU, said the full sessions make sense when assessed and compared to the present state of the ethanol industry. "Plant builders today must be more resourceful," he said, explaining that optimization is a must. "We can work the down-turn to our advantage," he said.

Logterman said another benefit he has seen since providing the sessions is the ability to cross-reference problems he himself has encountered at the ethanol plant back home and then addressed them at the training in Plymouth. "I've got a page of notes in my notebook as [our plant] has been having some issues, and then all of a sudden its like the light bulb goes off when you're in class here and you go, ‘hey that might be our problem,' so you take some information back," he said. Snapping his fingers in the air, Logterman said he has seen a problem solved instantly that he had failed to originally see. "[It's like] dang, I didn't catch it the first time," he said.

The ethanol plant model in the beginning was relatively uniform, Logterman explained, but said that things have changed with time as different areas are tweaked. A lot of the plants are ICM Fagen, Broin or POET plants he explained. "You know everybody kind of had a certain standard and a lot of the plants are built the same," he said. "They took tweaks as they changed generation [and the] plant built today [is different] then one built in 2000." Logterman said the learning curve is changing as plant operations can be improved for maximum efficiency. "We find little spots in the plants where we can make something better," he said.

Alwin said the shoulder-to-shoulder communications during the training session between the technicians is a huge plus for companies because they have the opportunity to exchange information and compare notes. Logterman agrees. "We communicate a lot with the other ICM Fagen plants," he said, adding that he has compared notes with some technicians from United Wisconsin Grain Producers LLC, who attended a previous training session. "We exchange information because they've seen problems come up [due to] the age of their plant," Logterman said. "We were built a year later so we share that information and say ‘hey this is what we're seeing.'"

Future training sessions are scheduled and Logterman said his company will probably continue to send technicians to those. "Yesterday they brought out a new product (a valve) that they have that we can apply to our process in certain applications where we have pressure issues so we can change those out on the fly," he said, explaining that it's important to stay in step with the changes. "Up to this point that technology wasn't in the industry so you basically had to shut-down to change out. There's always something new," he said.

Alwin said BAFU is always responding to the ever-changing needs of their clients and will be adding several new courses to the curriculum. The new courses will include sessions on heat exchangers, pumps, emission compliance, ethanol operations, and control loop tuning. He said they expect to have sessions underway "soon."

The cost to attend the Performance Plus training is $1,000 per technician. "[$1,000] is nothing to these companies compared to what they save [as result of the investment it constitutes," Alwin said. Most plants simply sit around and wait for something to break down and then somebody over to fix it, he said, describing it as just putting out fires. "The goal is to know how to stop fires from even starting," he said.

Sessions for the Performance Plus Ethanol Maintenance Training are scheduled for Sept. 11-12 and Dec. 4-5.