Orbital Welding Solution - Methanex Plant

Orbital Welding Solution - Methanex Plant


A unique situation is playing out in northern B.C. where a welding trade school, its union and an Alberta contractor are teaming up for a maintenance shutdown contract at a Methanex plant in Kitimat.

The project is a combined effort of the three participants and uses state of the art orbital welding, a programmable, micro-processor controlled technique still so new to the province that only one B.C. shop - the Piping Industry Apprenticeship trade School on Annacis Island - currently offers training on it.

During the shutdown a crew of workers is replacing methanol-eroded pipe with more rugged nickel alloy sections. In all, 24 separate welds are scheduled for the 12 to 14 day shutdown that began earlier this month.


Welders at the Piping Industry Apprenticeship Board Trade School practice setting up a guide ring on an orbital welding machine. Extensive training in the shop was an important precursor to a maintenance shutdown project currently underway at a Methanex plant in Kitimat, B.C.

Since each day of the shutdown means close to a million dollars in lost revenue for Methanex an aggressive schedule is required. Orbital welding, which can be done much quicker and with more precision than a manual approach, means a longer, costlier shutdown no longer has to be the price of doing business.

Heading up repairs is Alberta mechanical contractor Melloy & Associates. Though the company has its own people trained in orbital welding it looked to the PIAB trade school to supply a local crew.

As well as being a union jurisdictional issue - B.C. has journeymen trained in the field of orbital welding and therefore has jurisdiction over out-of-province union workers - the arrangement suits Melloy because the company is considering expanding to B.C. Should that happen the creation of a skilled work base will give them a pool from which to draw.

"B.C. has some excellent welders," says Melloy field supervisor Terry Leicht. "And Local 170 (of the plumbing and pipefitters union) is going out of its way to ensure they give us an elite group of people."

From the school's perspective the critical factor is that the work is going to B.C. tradespeople. "We got wind that (Melloy) was coming in to do the work and we had to convince them that instead of bringing in their own people, which would have cost B.C. jobs, that our guys could do the work," said the school's director of training, Ron Gehring.


The complex computerized equipment requires orbital welders to be as much technicians as laborers, says chief instructor John Little.

The arrangement is providing practical experience for B.C. welders who have only practiced the orbital technique in a controlled shop environment. More importantly, the contract is helping to build a specialized knowledge base in a field expected to dominate the welding industry in years to come.

Melloy is paying for materials, training, and testing of the equipment as well as workers' wages. Funded by the union, the school is carrying out training and providing the team of welders. Each attending welder is required to take a 60 hour course on orbital welding plus additional job-specific training.

Melloy has recruited 14 welders and 16 pipefitters plus a handful of apprentices and foremen for a total B.C. crew of 36.

Ten of Melloy's workers are also bound for the Kitimat plant.

The Methanex contract involves removing sections of 600 millimeter diameter header from its reformer furnace and replacing them with longer lasting 800H nickel pipe imported from Germany.

Originating in the U.S., orbital welding is a computer-based process that demands more from welders than just hand-eye coordination. The system comprises a micro-processor into which welding schedules can be programmed and manipulated either by a remote pendant or directly on the power source.

During the weld, a gas tungsten arc travels around the outside of the pipe along a guide ring on the orbital weld head, all of which is clamped to the pipe. The technique can be used both in new construction and pipe repairs.

The PIAB Trade school has been training welders in the orbital field since 1992 with equipment on loan from Arc Machines, Inc. (AMI) of California.

Though the technique is slower to catch on in Canada than the U.S., PIAB chief welding instructor John Little says "it's only a matter of time" before it is more widely used.

The weld produced by the orbital equipment is superior to manual welds in terms of precision and speed and requires a lower interpass temperature which means less metallurgical stress.

The equipment is expensive, however, and more technical skills are required to operate it. The machine on loan from AMI is worth roughly $100,000 and requires its operators to be as much technicians as laborers.

Little has been promoting the equipment since it was introduced to the school four years ago. Since then he estimates 80 people have been trained on orbital welding systems, 35 of which have taken the more intensive 60 hour training course.

For the Melloy contract, job-specific training was carried out 12 hours per day for a two and a half week period. As part of the retrofit the crew is required to do 24 large scale welds, each of which takes approximately 40 hours.

Work is being carried out around the clock with rotating 10-hour shifts of eight orbital welding machines. Manually, Little points out, the job would take "a matter of months instead of days".

Training began at the Annacis Island trade school the first week of September and the entire crew assembled at Methanex for the $1 million contract by Oct. 3rd.

In addition to the welders, close to 500 tradespeople including cement workers, carpenters, insulation and sheet metal workers have been hired to carry out other aspects of maintenance for Methanex.

All contracts are expected to be completed by mid-October.


Reprinted from the Journal of Commerce, October 14, 1998