​How the COAA says better oilsands modules can help bring back investment competitiveness

Illustration: Jeremy Seeman/JWN

Modularization is crucial to ensuring large-scale projects in Alberta are safer, more organized and more cost effective. A newly released best practices document by the Construction Owners Association of Alberta (COAA) has been designed with the hopes of pushing those benefits to the next level and further strengthening the appeal of modularization.

“Heavy modules can have a very significant improvement on total improved cost of a project, up to several per cent. On a $5-billion project, that’s pretty important," says COAA adviser Larry Staples.

"It starts to move Alberta back into the range of being productive and being able to compete for investment dollars. These kinds of improvements in project economics are significant in not just reducing costs to owners, but improving the investment attractiveness."

Like most of COAA’s best practices, the new modularization assembly framework is a distillation of the best thinking of the best people in the business in Alberta, Staples says.

"The new modular best practice is a series of checklists, which are a distillation of practices which have been successful for them."

The framework covers many different aspects of modular construction, including design, contracting, module assembly, transportation and assembly, but its overarching theme is safety.

“Safety, of course, is the foundation of everything. As our current strategic mantra highlights, we’ve found that the same organization practices, the same project management disciplines, the same communication skills among the project leaders that lead to projects with very good safety records, those same management disciplines and communication skills lead to well organized and productive projects,” Staples says. “Working on safety is job number one, but also wins in productivity as well.”

A committee made up of owner representatives, members of the steel fabrication industry and labour providers developed the document. All sides had to be represented so that the checklists would be fair and balanced for all parties. The committee starting working on the plan early in 2015, and it was presented at COAA’s 2016 Best Practices Conference in May.

According to Staples, the document was necessary because of the “astronomical growth” of modularization in Alberta over the last few years. He notes the Edmonton region used to have just one or two mod yards in operation, but is now home to around 10. While there are several regions of the world with tidewater access that have become experts in modularization, especially for offshore projects, Alberta is becoming an industry leader as well.

“In terms of landlocked modularization, Alberta is on the leading edge. We have more experience than anyone else over the past couple of decades,” Staples says. “We have the experience, and we have the ability to innovate.”

Lessons from the early days

There are three major benefits to modularization when compared to stick building, and COAA’s best practices document sets ways for Alberta’s construction industry to build upon them. The first is efficiency, which comes from working in a controlled environment not subject to weather conditions. Modules are also built in more centrally located areas with a large pool of workers, like Edmonton, rather than in more remote areas that require workers be transported in and housed.

The second benefit to modularization is the ability to have parallel streams of construction happening at the same time, which cuts down on the overall build time.

“Rather than starting at the east end of a site and building steadily westward, you can have two or three mod yards working on the parts of the plant, and it all comes together in a relatively short period of time,” Staples says.

The third benefit is safety. Moving from an ad hoc construction environment to an assembly line set-up means the worksite is more orderly and predictable, which makes safety risks easier to manage, according to Staples.

Combined, these benefits greatly outweigh any downsides, but the best practices document will help to further eliminate potential shortcomings to modularization, he says.

“In the early days of modularization, when the modules actually showed up at site, there would be a great groan of dismay when the piping on Unit A didn’t line up with the piping on Unit B or the foundation piles were a metre in the wrong direction. Those lessons from the early days have been well learned and have been incorporated in the checklists to ensure those kinds of issues are covered off at the planning and drawing stage rather than the jackhammering stage,” Staples says.

Next steps

Modularization started in Alberta 30–40 years ago with specific pieces of equipment like motors, compressors or control panels being built on skids. It grew from small container-sized pieces of equipment to large, heavy building blocks for refineries, upgraders or petrochemical facilities. Now, the next step is to concentrate the modules, increasing their density and add more equipment, piping and electrical so they can be set down and operated with minimal additional on-site work.

Fluor Canada is one of the companies pushing this concept forward. It was recently awarded COAA’s modularization innovation award for its work on the Shell Quest carbon capture and storage project. Rather than designing the project and then trying to determine how it could be split into modules, Fluor conceptualized it from the start as being modularly built. This was a subtle but significant shift in thinking about modularization, according to Staples.

“That has really changed the way that a highly modularized project moves from the conceptual stage through the design stage,” he says. “The thinking about earlier and greater modularization has led to a change in thinking about how to do projects. The equipment needs to be ordered much earlier if it’s going to be installed in the mod yards rather than on site. The layout of the plant needs to be frozen much earlier because we need to know exactly how the modules are going to fit together, rather than leaving it to be adjusted during that stick-building stage.”

Modules on the move

The increased complexity and density of modules does present a major challenge—how to transport them to site. Alberta Transportation has set limits on the maximum width, length and height of modules, and those limits are based on what can safely be moved down a two-lane highway in the province. While those units can’t get any larger in size, they can get heavier if more equipment is added to them in the mod yards rather than on site.

In March, COAA participated in a pilot project with Mammoet and Suncor that saw the largest possible module move from Edmonton to Fort McMurray to examine how a heavier duty trailer designed to handle the increased loads would fare on the roadways. Rather than the standard eight-wheel-wide trailer, the pilot used a trailer that was 12 wheels wide, which could handle a much heavier load. Now that the module has been moved safely, COAA is in discussion with Alberta Transportation to see how heavier loads could be authorized and permitted.

Being able to make and transport modules more cost effectively also makes it more attractive to build the modules locally, rather than outsourcing fabrication overseas, according to Staples.

“As we make these types of modules more attractive to the owners, it gives a competitive advantage to local Alberta fab yards, versus offshore fab yards that now have to fit smaller modules onto ships and be transported over the Rocky Mountains,” he says. “If we build them here in the Edmonton region or the Industrial Heartland region and we can transport them safely and relatively quickly to Fort McMurray, it’s a way of building our own economy, building our own expertise and high paid jobs within Alberta.”

Like this? Read more in the latest issue of Oilsands Review.

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