Stu Padgett, corporate purchasing manager at Mobile, AL-based Industrial Valve Sales and Service, got the call when he was sitting in a deer stand on Thanksgiving Day in 2016: A customer had decided that it needed to move up the timeline on the scheduled delivery of a pressure seal from the following Monday to 6 a.m. Saturday.
Industrial Valve had been performing routine maintenance during a scheduled outage at South Mississippi Electric Power Association, now Cooperative Energy, in Moselle, MS. One identified task was to replace a pressure seal on a 1,500-lb-class globe valve that was taking fresh water to the boiler. Getting a metal replacement seal from the original equipment manufacturer would have taken at least two weeks, which wasn’t an option for South Mississippi Electric.
Industrial Valve called on longtime partner EGC Enterprises which engineers and manufactures graphite seals and can deliver in days rather than weeks, for a solution. The day before Thanksgiving, an order was placed with EGC for a high-density graphite seal, scheduled for delivery on Monday. But on Thanksgiving, Padgett found out that the power association had reconsidered and decided to bring the boiler back up ahead of schedule, necessitating a delivery by early Saturday – for a made-to-order seal that needed to be engineered and manufactured before being placed on a truck that would take at least 12 hours to get from EGC’s Cleveland facility to Moselle.
Those “need-it-now” calls are “few and far between, but they do happen,” Padgett says. Normally plants “are real good about not having those emergencies on the holidays, but people don’t plan on having accidents, either,” he notes. So Padgett, in the deer stand, called Thom Jessup, sales manager for fluid sealing at EGC, and they got to work. “He got me in touch with the people I needed to talk to in order to get the measurements from his company,” Jessup says.
Engineering of the graphite seal, which was created specifically for power-plant outages and uses a production process that eliminates tooling to speed manufacturing, began Friday morning. EGC determined that a conventional graphite pressure seal with top and bottom stainless-steel caps was needed; fortunately, the company was able to CNC the caps in-house. The seal left EGC’s facility with a “hot-shot” (expedited) delivery driver around 3 p.m. Friday and made it to Mississippi before the 6 a.m. deadline.
EGC developed its FastTrac program in 2009 to address exactly these emergency/urgent situations after discerning that its standard two-week lead time on manufacturing seals was no longer aligned with the realities of a changed marketplace. Previously, “(A) plant would be down for three or four weeks at a time, so a two-week turnaround was fine,” Jessup says. “Then we got into the recession and everyone trimmed their pocketbooks, so then outages turned into one week or two weeks, especially with the change from coal-fired plants to combined-cycle plants, gas-fired plants.”
FastTrac promised 48-hour expedited turnaround, and a new, even-faster method of manufacturing graphite pressure seals that EGC rolled out in 2012 allowed the company to offer 24-hour turnaround, at a premium cost. Currently, about one-third of EGC clients use the FastTrac service, Jessup says.
“One time, we had a company down in Houston that needed a seal and they didn’t want to wait for a driver (and) UPS next-day (delivery), so we had to find a charter flight to get it down there,” he says. “But when a company’s losing a million dollars a shift when they’re not running, the cost is not a problem.”
The availability of expedited solutions, of course, is one thing; actually handling an urgent situation successfully is another. If lines of communication get dropped and messages don’t make it to the right people in time, the most advanced supply-chain solutions in the world won’t solve whatever problem is at hand. But that’s why Padgett didn’t sweat it when the call came in – he and Industrial Valve had been working with EGC for years and knew the company to be a dependable and responsive partner.
Especially in an urgent situation, Padgett says, one of the keys is to be in touch immediately with multiple people from the organization you’re dealing with. With EGC, for example, “we have multiple contacts, multiple cell numbers – we don’t rely on one person to carry the load.” Not everybody is going to need to see a given message that they’re copied on or will be able to respond to an all-hands-on-deck voicemail, but getting in touch immediately with several people can promote accountability and produce faster action. “We just want to cover ourselves that enough people get their eyes on it, (so) it will get handled immediately,” Padgett says. “They touch base with each other and act on it faster.”
Padgett’s only complaint about EGC and the FastTrac service is the cost. “The expedite charges, that’s my only heartburn,” he says.
Avoiding emergencies in the first place is the goal of plants seeking to employ more predictive and prescriptive approaches to maintenance, but the reality of unexpected urgent work remains. What does that mean for the market for expedited-service programs such as FastTrac?
“We do have customers that have learned how to work around getting it done same-day,” says Jessup. But overall so far, “it really hasn’t changed much,” he says. And surprises occur even for companies that have carefully strategized their planned outages. “It’s not that they didn’t plan properly, it’s just some things are unexpected,” he says – even (especially?) on a holiday weekend.