The Devil's In the Details

OEM Skid Builders and Their End Users Must Learn How to Communicate Better

By Rich Merritt

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The benefits that can come from design collaboration between machine builder and customer are well-known. It makes sense that if lots of design discussion takes place upfront, then, particularly in the case of machinery such as customized process modules from skid-builder companies, the result should be an easier installation, configuration, and startup. That means happy and, often, repeat customers.

We went looking for those positive benefits in the process skid-builder community. What we found paints a picture far more revealing of opportunity lost than of benefit gained.

Our research found a significant and sometimes disturbing level of discontent between skid builders and their end user customers. Some end users think skid builders are arrogant, don’t or won’t follow specs, don’t or won’t understand their problems, and don’t or won’t meet their standards. It all seems to come down to a failure to communicate.

In this article, we’ll spell out the mess we found, and then offer ways that end users and skid builders can learn from these problems to communicate better.

Winter of Discontent
Ian Drazin, electrical and instrumentation supervisor at Potlach Corp., a supplier of potash fertilizers in North Las Vegas, Nev., is very upset with the quality of his skid-built equipment. “My company recently purchased seven chemical skids and they’ve been nothing but a major problem,” he reports. “The problems include motor failures and pulsing positive displacement pump flows being measured by incorrectly specified flow transmitters. Where was the engineering? Did they ever field test their design?”

Drazin also is unhappy that the equipment wasn’t built to spec. “None of our corporate electrical standards were followed,” he adds.

So why buy skid-mounted equipment in the first place? “I have the expertise in my department to build any system I wish,” he says. “The problem is limited man-hours. We simply have too many other items on our plate that will directly affect machine run time if we don’t work on them first. There is not enough time left over to devote to building our own skid system. Therefore, we turn to third-party suppliers.”

In addition, when these systems actually do their jobs, the equipment supplied often doesn’t meet the user’s desired configuration and standards. “My latest problem comes from two different vendors for automatic pH neutralization and polymer mixing and injection,” says Gary Jacobson, P.E., project manager at CH2M Hill, a Boston-based consulting engineering firm. “Our clients sometimes want the system to conform to their standard for PLCs or operator interfaces, and the skid vendors either refuse or do not provide what they have accepted an order for. Skid vendors have completely ignored comments to submitted drawings and documentation, or have agreed to incorporate comments, but then didn’t do so.”

Other end users would only comment anonymously [see the “Angry Voices” sidebar below]. One reported, “I wouldn’t want to give the impression that we’re unable to manage the vendors. Although, in this case, I guess we can’t apparently, but neither can anyone else.”


This entire computer-controlled pilot plant for polymer research arrives at the customer site on a skid. Source: Unitel Technologies

Even a builder involved in skid design and manufacturing since the 1980s agrees. “I regret to say it, but this industry has become quite shoddy over the last two to three decades,” says Serge Randhava, CEO of Unitel Technologies, which builds computer-controlled, skid-mounted pilot plants (See Figure 1) in Mt. Prospect, Ill. “The big problem is that the typical skid builder simply doesn’t have the motivation or initiative to add intellectual value to the project. The common attitude is, ‘Hey, I’m just doing what I’m paid to do. My job is to simply follow the bills of materials and blueprints I’m given, and assemble a skid as quickly as possible.’ They’re not paid to think, either about process engineering details or downstream project management issues.”

It also appears that some skid builders don’t want to change their basic designs. “Skid builders are often incapable of building custom systems,” says Richard Neff, president of skid builder Irrigation Craft in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “They lack the knowledge and engineering skills to correctly understand the specifications and intelligently communicate with the specifying engineers. They bid a low price, and then resent having to provide what the specifications require.”

Jacobson remains equally unhappy. “I’m looking forward to the skid manufacturer on my last project coming forward to bid on my next project, at which time I will do my job as the owner’s engineer, and disqualify them from consideration.”

Failing to Plan…
Warren Searles, president of HydroTec Systems, a skid builder for waste and water treatment systems in Rockton, Ill., says problems often originate with the end user/owner, and a lack of communication from the owner to its vendors.
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