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Asset Integrity: The Key to a Good Night’s Sleep

In recent years, we’ve seen some devastating asset failures in the mining industry. Dams, conveyors, ship loaders, electrical infrastructure, tanks, mobile equipment; when these assets fail catastrophically – such as a structural collapse, fire or explosion – they can result in deaths, environmental damage, and economic losses in the millions.

Quite often, when one of these failures becomes public, a senior leader in an organisation will track down the nearest asset manager and ask them “can this happen to us?” They’re looking for a response along the lines of “everything’s under control, nothing to worry about.” Occasionally, they’ll be made aware of an area of concern that can be fixed. However, all too often, they receive the worst answer of all:
“We don’t know….”

The key to being able to answer this question is in the concept of Asset Integrity Management. Bluefield is regularly asked by clients to help them assess and improve the integrity of their critical assets. In our experience, asset integrity is often misunderstood or poorly implemented in the mining industry. We’ve learned a lot over the past few years, and over the next few weeks we’ll share some of our learnings, starting with understanding the concept itself.

Asset integrity aims to provide confidence that critical assets are fit for purpose, and are being safely operated and maintained, so that they can sustainably achieve their required function(s) without impacting the health and safety of people, the environment, or the business itself. Asset integrity is managed via a system or program and is commonly referred to as an Asset Integrity Management System (AIMS) or Asset Integrity Assessment Program (AIAP).

The intent of an AIMS or AIAP should not be to extend the life of an asset as much as possible. Instead, the program should concentrate on ensuring the consistent performance of the asset over its entire life cycle in order to deliver the objectives of the business. An AIMS or AIAP ensures the correct people, processes, resources and systems are in place to maintain the integrity of an asset or system of assets. So, in a way, asset integrity management is about a business re-calibrating its asset management plans by comparing the actual condition and performance of an asset against what was expected in the plan at that stage of its life cycle.

The importance of asset integrity management cannot be overstated because it also provides full transparency on the critical and high impact risk scenarios for an asset. Asset integrity risks need to be assessed over a meaningful time frame – often longer than what a business is used to considering – since we’re now considering failure modes that are low-frequency or take a long time to emerge. Asset integrity assessments therefore rely on a combined input from the following areas:
1. Risk management
2. Engineering assessments
3. Maintenance and operating practices
4. Management systems (procedures and processes)

It is also important to consider who is involved in asset integrity management. Since many assets covered in an AIMS or AIAP are relatively rare (or even unique) and have these risk scenarios and failure modes that unfold over a long period of time, an organisation may not necessarily retain the expertise needed to manage them. Due to the potential critical and high impact scenarios, there also is a need for an appropriate level of independence in assessing risks. Therefore, engaging a third-party to perform asset integrity assessments is often advisable to ensure independence and an objective point of view.

At a high-level, the asset integrity management process can be broken down into five stages. We consider it a cyclical process that should be carried out periodically to assess actual conditions against predicted conditions.

The first step is Identification. A business needs to identify the assets to be included in the assessment. Asset integrity assessment generally focuses on high-impact, low-frequency scenarios, so the organisation’s risk assessment criteria (and asset criticality analysis if one exists) is a useful input. The assessment team should also be engaged during this step.

Second is Inspection & Assessment. The assessment team conducts inspections and reviews to develop a snapshot in time regarding the health of critical assets and asset groups. Types of inspections/assessments can be a desktop review of engineering and condition monitoring reports, equipment operating assessments (online) and physical inspections (offline). The aim is to identify and prioritise defects (physical and systemic) for rectification using a risk-based approach. (A defect register is normally the output here).

Third is Rectification. The business normally needs to carry out remediation works to address the items detailed in the defects register during the inspection and assessment stage. Rectification activities may take a significant amount of time, requiring interim control measures to be implemented to mitigate risks.

Fourth is Validation. Following the completion of rectification works, a validation activity needs to be carried out to ensure the identified improvements (again – both physical and systemic) have been implemented to address the identified risks in the defect register.

The final step – often overlooked – is Evaluation. The business should record lessons learnt from the asset integrity exercise and use them to improve its processes. They should then recommence the asset integrity process with a condensed version of the identification phase to determine if there are any new critical or high impact scenarios that were not previously acknowledged.

Asset integrity assessments should generally be done every two to three years on average, but there’s flexibility depending on the findings of the last review and the nature of the risks identified. However, it’s important to re-do the exercise if there’s been a material change in the business that might affect the risk assessment (for example, a major plant modification).

A well-run asset integrity management program allows asset managers to confidently answer the important questions from senior leaders, which in turn allows everyone to sleep a little sounder at night.

–  Joshua Lorraway

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