Hose + Coupling World had the pleasure of speaking to John-Paul Schmidt, Piping Stress Leader at Dow Chemical, about working with clients to design projects, calculating risk, common challenges with equipment, as well as the best and most challenging aspects of the job. In Part One of the series, we cover acceptable risk, the importance of knowledge sharing and mentorship, as well as the types of equipment Schmidt, will deal with on a typical day.
By Editorial Team
Raised in the small chemical plant town of Mont Belvieu, Texas, where nearly everyone in town worked in the plant, John-Paul Schmidt was exposed to the industry at a young
age, quickly discovering a passion for engineering and “creating something useful out of something worthless”. After obtaining his BSc in Chemical Engineering from Lamar
University and an MBA with a focus on Project Management, Procurement and Project Finance from the University of Houston, Schmidt recently obtained his PE license—considered the highest standard of competence in the engineering profession.
Today, Schmidt works in a mechanical engineering capacity at Dow Chemical, but has prior experience working in a variety of roles in both capital and maintenance projects. After graduating during a downturn in the market, Schmidt was able to use one of his hobbies, computer animation, as a jumping point into drafting, where he worked for several years before moving into a process engineering role, and then into piping engineering.
In his current role, Schmidt works out of the Dow Houston office, where he guides the day-to-day activities of a handful of designers and engineers and coordinates their training and performance reviews. He also helps a variety of clients with capital and maintenance projects. “The designers create a proposed design,” he explains, “and the pipe stress engineers review that design to make sure that the physics involved are safe. After the designer has proposed a routing, we check the thermal growth, the weight, and flow phenomena like transient flow, water hammer, flow-induced vibration, acoustically-induced
vibration and all the different rigors that we put the pipes through to make sure that there are absolutely no unplanned events.”
“Unplanned events are unacceptable.”, Schmidt tells Hose + Coupling World. “Dow plans to be safe, to protect the environment, to ensure the health of the community, and to make a profit. Hurricanes, ice, and other natural phenomena are no excuse to deviate from the plan”. It is up to Schmidt and his team to predict the risks associated with piping and to help the owner manage them.
To make his calculations, Schmidt draws from a wealth of information already documented and known in the industry, taking the concepts of materials engineering and applying them to the industrial world. The risk of an earthquake, for example, can be calculated in several
different ways, some of which are very complex, but the team is usually able to find a more simplified method, one in which the pipe is never pushed “to the ragged edge of danger”.
“In any business or engineering endeavor, we have to take risks,” explains Schmidt. “My goal is to take intelligent risks. For example, a designer will attempt to apply a design to
a situation and I evaluate the risks associated with that design, in that situation, and of course I try to limit those as much as possible.”
“In some cases,” he continues, “with the accuracy of the calculations involved, it is better to err on the side of safety, say 20 percent or even 30 percent, as opposed to trying to save a few pennies and then shaving it down to a 1–3 percent margin of error.”
Sometimes an owner’s consulting engineer will recommend an expensive solution to what they perceive of as a credible risk to the operating plan. When the owner disagrees with the proposal or the risk assessment, Schmidt’s team will be called in for a second opinion. Many times, the key conflict is on risk tolerance and deciding the best engineering model
to apply to a design. Negotiating this conflict resolution can be challenging both technically and socially.
“Schedule delays on large projects can mean large financing charges. Delaying a 300 million- dollar project 6 weeks costs 3 million at the company’s borrowing cost,” says Schmidt. “The capital costs can be huge but the time to market, and the cost of a deployed construction team not being productive may surpass them.”
Dow has a strong mentoring program focused on skill development, employee engagement and strengthening best practices. Mentorship programs are a long-term investment and can make a real difference in the dynamics of an organization, though not all companies in the industry embrace mentorship and knowledge transfer, which deepens the learning curve for new employees.
“At Dow, we are able to leverage the talent we have with our mentors,” explains Schmidt, “while mentees bring fresh ideas. The mentor-mentee relationship is effective in helping to accelerate the growth of the mentee and to provide unique insights for the mentor. It’s really a win-win situation.”
Another advantage of a mentorship program, Schmidt points out, is that by training mentees he is sometimes alerted to gaps in his own knowledge.
“I noticed, during training sessions with my mentees, I became more aware of what I didn’t know. It turned into an opportunity for me to learn new things and fill those gaps in my own understanding. I have definitely found that the best way to continuously learn and to find holes in an established process is to train somebody new.” Schmidt himself was mentored by his predecessor, Scott Allen, who guided him into the world of pipe stress engineering.
“Being mentored helped me accelerate my own learning and expertise and gave me opportunities to succeed,” he says. “The sustainability of the industry as a whole depends
on this relationship, and I believe that everyone must do their part.”
In his role, Schmidt works with a variety of equipment, including valves, pumps, expansion joints, and hoses. “Hoses are great if they are designed right, installed properly and maintained, but I have seen problems with all three. As long as you have the right people for the job, who knows how to use them properly and maintain them, you can use hoses to get a really good result. That said, it only takes one mistake to give the whole technology a bad rep,” says Schmidt.
While plant technicians generally take care of any hose issues, Schmidt is very hands-on with the company’s many expansion joints, which require a higher level of technical
“With expansion joints, I get involved pretty quickly,” he says. “They can get quite complicated. Expansion joints are typically used in places where you are trying to isolate
vibration, where there is some usual movement (like settlements), or where there is a delicate nozzle that needs to be taken care of. For example, we have a lot of glass-lined reactors at Dow Chemical, which are great for reducing corrosion or product contamination. These reactors have a glass nozzle, which is obviously quite delicate, so we often use expansion joints to protect those.”
“With enough links,” he continues, “almost any pipe can be made to flex back and forth, but the real estate, of course, starts to become very expensive and therefore not very pragmatic. So, we go to the expansion joint—we have them all over the place—but they have to be designed very carefully.”
For this, the company turns to the Expansion Joint Manufacturers Association (EJMA), an organization of expansion joint manufacturers founded to establish and maintain quality design and manufacturing standards. Dow suppliers are EJMA approved, ensuring that joints installed in any Dow facility are of the highest quality.
“First and foremost, I want quality,” explains Schmidt. “As I mentioned, the opportunity cost for shutting down a chemical plant for any length of time is terrible, but that is nothing compared to the idea of hurting someone. Expansion joints can be failure points, and at Dow we take them very seriously.”
He also works with many different types of pumps—including positive displacement and centripetal compressors—and says that one of the biggest challenges he sees in terms of
safe pump installation has to do with the vendor. “If vendors don’t have a clear idea of the allowable load, that can make safe installation a challenge.”
He continues: “When installing the pump, I am interested in making sure that the forces on the inlet and outlet are low enough that it is going to work reliably. A pump that is
getting too much force on its connections will suffer case deformation or coupling misalignment. If that happens, you are going to have difficulty getting that pump to work; you might have seals failing early and general reliability issues, which translate to downtime in your plant.”
As the group leader for process safety valve installation, Schmidt is also no stranger to relief devices and spends a good deal of time working with pressure safety valves (PSVs),
rupture discs and many other types. Generally, Schmidt is less concerned with the inner-working of the relief devices and more concerned with how they relate to the pipe assembly.