Ross Krill Talks Oil Sands Manufacturing

One of the largest manufacturing operations in Alberta sits just south of Edmonton in Nisku. Sitting on 46 acres it ships out around 600,000 kilograms of product a month – equivalent to 550 Honda Civics. With around 500 staff Cenovus Energy’s Nisku modular yard assembles the heart of Cenovus’ SAGD oil sands projects.

They manufacture the heart of these SAGD projects, the central processing facilities where the oil is separated from the water and where the steam is created and piped out underground to the well pairs.

ross_k_015finalbWe talked to Ross Krill, the director of facilities at Cenovus’ Christina Lake operation to talk about the process and the challenges of running a manufacturing operation like this.

Productivity Alberta: What do you make?
Ross Krill: There are two types of modules that we assemble in Nisku. One is what we call a pipe rack module, it’s a kind of structural skeleton with beams and columns and and only pipe gets installed in it. We also produce an equipment module which includes vessels, pumps, exchangers and the like.

We don’t fabricate anything at Nisku, we’re assembling in Nisku. All of the raw materials are prefabricated elsewhere and we just bolt it all together. All of the structural steel is pre-cut and pre-welded. It’s like Lego, all of the pieces come ready to assemble.

PA: Why did Cenovus go down this module route and what kind of challenges do you face?
RK: It was to take a bit of ownership in the supply chain. We became an active participant instead of relying on third party shops to deliver modules.

The manufacturing challenges are always going to be quality and timeliness from our vendors and suppliers and once we get into the yard itself it’s down to the quality and the productivity of the craft labour we have on site.

Managing the yard as we do, as the prime contractor, the number one focus is always a safe environment. That is first and foremost. Access to labour hasn’t been too bad a challenge over the past couple of years. We’ve had relatively good success in finding the skills and talents we need.

PA: Why the shift from custom engineering to modularization in the oil sands?
RK: It makes sense to design it once and repeat it many times. We’re going to get better and better at it each time as we go through. Not designing from scratch every single time saves you a lot of time and money.

PA: How big are these modules?
RK: If you put four pipe rack modules end to end it would be the length of a football field.

PA: When kind of jobs are you hiring for at the Nisku yard?
RK: Pipefitters, ironworkers, electricians, labourers, insulators, crane operators. Any craft discipline you would see on a construction site. You’re also going to have your engineering disciplines; civil, structural and process.

PA: What kind of cost savings and benefits has Cenovus seen from handling their manufacturing?
RK: It’s pretty cost-neutral. The real benefit is our ability to control the schedule, control the quality and know what we’re going to receive in the field. Controlling uncertainty, that is the real benefit.

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