With more than 50 years in the oil and gas industry, Exterran is a leading provider of natural gas compression solutions around the world — operating in more than 30 countries with over 10,000 employees.
Exterran prides itself on industry-leading experience, superior customer service and technical expertise centered on the design, development, implementation and servicing of its products and solutions. It’s a philosophy that people have taken notice of: The Houston Chronicle in 2014 ranked Exterran at No. 8 on its top 100 list of Houston’s leading public companies, noting that Exterran notched $3.2 billion in annual revenue in 2013 and an earnings-per-share growth of 175%.
At the Exterran Brittmoore location in Houston, employees fabricate and assemble large natural gas compression packages and other production and processing equipment that are distributed to customers across the energy spectrum. The facility’s pipe shop produces all the process piping and water piping to support the compression systems that are fabricated at both the Brittmoore and North Houston Rosslyn facilities.
With more than 40 6G-certified welding operators, the Brittmoore pipe shop handles stainless and carbon steel Schedule 40 to Schedule 160 pipe ranging from 1 inch to 18 inches in diameter. In producing pipe used in the oil and gas industry, the facility must meet strict quality standards, with welds going through various types of nondestructive testing onsite, including x-ray, phased array and hydrostatic testing.
“Quality is something we never waver on,” says Michael Koprivnak, value stream manager for fabrication processes at the Brittmoore facility.
In an effort to improve efficiency and production while still maintaining that high product quality, the Exterran Brittmoore facility recently converted and completely standardized its pipe shop to the Miller PipeWorx 400 welding system. The switch resulted in significant productivity gains and improvement in already-high weld passage rates — results that were achieved in less than three months.
“Our pipe shop has become a top-performing area in our facility, and that’s enabled us to take on more volume,” says Brian Ehricke, senior manufacturing manager at the site. “There is no question that the Miller product is superior in terms of its capabilities, the efficiency, ease of use — things that are important to us in an effort to try to streamline our shop.”
A focus on efficiency
Management at the Exterran Brittmoore facility recently underwent a process to make the whole enterprise more lean and efficient, including a Lean Kaizen standardization effort. One focus was the pipe shop, which had been the highest cost, most underperforming area at the facility. Management and employees implemented lean manufacturing principles and studied factors such as layout and flow, in an effort to drive out any waste or inefficiency.
Then they realized one thing they hadn’t really considered: the welding equipment. The Exterran Brittmoore facility had 13 different kinds of welding machines in its pipe shop.
“We have put a lot of energy into lean and lean transformation. We’re developing that culture here, with a big focus on visual management and standardization,” Ehricke says. “Our lack of standardization in equipment emerged as a key challenge for us.”
So Exterran evaluated vendors and then reached out to Miller for input in evaluating the machines and shop processes. Facility managers saw that the PipeWorx welding system met the pipe shop’s needs for MIG, TIG and Flux-Cored processes and also offered the advanced RMD® (Regulated Metal Deposition) process — all in a streamlined single-system design for a true multiprocess machine that saves space with its smaller machine footprint.
After an initial test of one machine for several weeks, the Exterran Brittmoore site invested in 13 PipeWorx systems. They later added five more, standardizing their pipe shop entirely to that system. The Brittmoore facility will look at adding more of the machines as the shop grows, and other Exterran facilities are also considering the PipeWorx for standardization and productivity benefits.
“The impact on productivity was almost immediate,” Ehricke says. “In terms of our welders’ ability to drive more throughput through less setup time, faster deposition rates — across both our more experienced and less experienced welders, we saw the same level of improvement in productivity.”
A 24% increase in production
One key feature is the advanced RMD technology, which gives Exterran welding operators the ability to improve the deposition rate in the stringer pass to the point where they can eliminate the second hot pass — saving about 15 minutes per weld. Deposition rates went from about 160 inches per minute to about 290 inches per minute with the process. Weld inches increased from 4.5 to 8.5 inches per minute.
“That’s been key to our productivity improvement. We think that the RMD has kind of revolutionized how we approach pipe welding and weld efficiency,” Ehricke says. “It takes a lot of variation out of the hands of the worker, and the machine does a lot of the adjusting for the employee.”
In just the first few months after the standardization to PipeWorx machines, the Exterran Brittmoore facility’s production and volume grew significantly. Overall throughput, looking at year-over-year numbers, grew 24%, and productivity was up 22%. The number of pipe spools completed per day increased by 15%, to more than 50 spools.
“We’ve seen a 24% improvement on the same numbers we were producing last year, with the same group of people,” Koprivnak says. “This year we’re performing at world-class levels.”
After a few more months with the new machines, productivity grew even more for Exterran, with the facility seeing a 30% boost in production.
The productivity increase at the Brittmoore location pipe shop means business volume has also grown significantly, as the facility can retain more work internally. It enabled the location to virtually absorb all additional growth internally, rather than outsourcing the work. Return on investment for the welding system at the Exterran Brittmoore facility was just over two months.
“There’s no way we’d be able to handle the volume that we’re seeing without the PipeWorx,” Ehricke says. “It eliminates a lot of the time and effort that was spent working through a lot of the challenges we were facing before.”
No compromise in weld quality
Surpassing production and output targets did not come at the expense of weld quality for the Exterran Brittmoore facility.
The equipment improvements and standardization addressed issues with lack of fusion in the welds the facility had been seeing, leading to a 2% improvement in weld passage rates, which are now consistently above 95% for the facility’s pipe shop.
“It’s hard to get a 2% uptick when you’re close to perfect, but we were able to achieve that,” Koprivnak says.
And because the weld puddle is more consistent, there is less spatter during the welding process, which significantly reduces the time Exterran employees spend grinding and cleaning between passes and post-weld.
Machine setup in minutes
Another factor in the improved productivity for the Exterran Brittmoore facility is the greatly reduced setup time of the welding system.
Whereas previously, welding operators would spend about 30 minutes at the start of their shift — or anytime they needed to change machines — setting up the machine, that has been reduced to just a few minutes with the PipeWorx system.
Welding operators have SIM cards with their preprogrammed settings that they take from booth to booth, inserting the card into any machine for quick and easy setup. That’s important in a pipe shop that runs multiple shifts of welding operators each day.
“It was an everyday occurrence where we were losing about a half an hour per operator just to get that machine set to where the operator wanted to run it,” Koprivnak says. “Now, you just put in your SIM card, your parameters are already set, you pick what number you want and you’re off and welding. It’s really not even minutes — it’s almost down to seconds now.”
The machines also offer easy process changeover, so the Exterran welding operators can switch from MIG to Flux-Cored with the quick push of a button, since they use RMD for the stringer (another term for the root bead) and Flux-Cored for the cap pass.
“I like it because it’s making my job easy and faster,” says Victor Vazquez, a welder at Exterran for 11 years.
The smaller footprint of the machines also helps maximize booth space and makes it less cluttered for the Exterran welding operators, which not only improves their safety but also the efficiency of their movements.
Faster operator training
In the Houston market, there is a high demand for qualified welders, and the Exterran Brittmoore facility in the past had struggled to find operators with two to three years of experience.
Having a pipe shop standardized with the PipeWorx welding system has leveled the playing field for recruiting and retaining welding operators at the Brittmoore facility. Exterran is able to bring in welding operators with less training and bring them up to speed quickly with the new system.
“We brought in six new welders that had no experience on the product whatsoever. In a matter of four or five days, they were at zero defects, and their productivity was right where we have our more senior operators,” Koprivnak says. “If we can get those kind of results, the sky is the limit.”
Exterran welding operators are happy with all the benefits they’ve seen from the machines.
“They’re less fatigued throughout the day; they’re putting out more production with less defects,” says Homero Garza, an area manager in the Brittmoore pipe shop. “Their morale is up because they’re seeing the technology and the advancements.”
An all-in-one welding system
As the Exterran Brittmoore facility looks to expand volume and grow its footprint, an investment in additional PipeWorx welding systems will be part of the plan.
“I don’t think you could talk to anybody in our shop and find anybody who doesn’t believe we’ve made a huge step forward in our capabilities with the Miller equipment and the PipeWorx specifically,” Ehricke says.
As cycle times and lead times improve, it gives the Exterran Brittmoore production facility a competitive edge, in an industry where time to delivery is essential.
“We wanted to have world-class equipment, and the Miller PipeWorx really stood out to us as that,” Koprivnak says. “What it provided us was a piece of equipment that was an all-in-one package.”