plant tower

Seeing Double

Ike Brackin is a senior process engineer for Flint Hills Resources. He’s been with Koch more than 40 years. He’s also the proud owner of a small ranch near Sinton, Texas, about 35 miles north of FHR’s refinery complex in Corpus Christi. Ike’s house, just off the county road, is a nice place, with a couple of pickup trucks parked in the driveway and an occasional airplane overhead taking off from the nearby San Patricio County airport.

You’d never know it from driving by, but Ike’s ranch house played an essential role in helping keep the Corpus Christi complex up and running during the COVID-19 lockdown last year. Thanks to software FHR rolled out in 2019, Ike was able to log in to the process control network securely, analyze process variables in real time and discuss adjustments to control schemes with operators on-site in Corpus without ever having to make the 70-mile round trip. 

“Remote interfaces like that which also meet our critical cybersecurity needs have become a big thing for us,” said Brook Vickery, plant manager for the FHR complex in South Texas. “It’s like having an encrypted tunnel so people can remotely interact with the control system when necessary.” Vickery noted a similar arrangement with engineers at the John Zink facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (John Zink is a Koch Engineered Solutions company.) “They can monitor, program and adjust our thermal oxidizer unit, which they designed and built, from hundreds of miles away.”

“Transformational technologies like these are redefining how we maintain, operate and support our processes,” said Paul Houslet, FHR’s vice president of transformation and services. “For years and years, we constrained ourselves to what we could do at the site. With remote technology, we can integrate the best capabilities regardless of location.”

For decades, FHR has worked hard at improving reliability and efficiency at its operations. Thanks to new technology, Houslet said FHR was taking those efforts to a new level: “We can now create a 3D scan of a plant that allows employees to do a ‘job walkthrough’ without ever stepping outdoors. That’s a pretty big plus when you’re working at our Minnesota refinery in the middle of winter or trying to practice social distancing during a pandemic.”

Like every Koch facility considered to be an essential enterprise, FHR’s Pine Bend Refinery, near St. Paul, Minnesota, had to rethink how to operate during the pandemic. Since there were plenty of things that couldn’t be done remotely, the team there came up with the idea of setting up a second control room. Alternating shifts between the two meant one control room could be cleaned and sanitized when the next shift showed up for work, minimizing exposure. “The team at Pine Bend put their new capabilities to work right away,” Houslet said. “They had it up and running in just 10 days.” 

Thanks to laptops equipped with VPN (a virtual private network), almost all of FHR’s office-based employees were immediately able to work remotely when lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were issued. “We had distributed those laptops as part of our business continuity planning,” Houslet explained. “To be honest, we were thinking more in terms of how we would operate after a tornado or hurricane or some other natural disaster. The idea of a pandemic was something we never saw coming.

“Thank goodness we had distributed those before we ever knew we were going to need them. It ended up being pretty seamless.”

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I had never worked remotely before, but now, whenever I leave the plant, I take my laptop with me, just in case. If last year taught me anything, it’s that you just never know.” - Ike Brackin