The Growing Disconnect in the Pipe Coating Industry

Takeaway: The continued growth of the pipe coating market needs and relies upon successfully bridging the current disconnect and interacting to deliver quality used coatings.

A Historical Perspective of Pipeline Coatings

In the last twenty or thirty years, the oil and gas pipeline coatings market has seen many modifications. From the days of coal tar coatings with fairly little oversight, the fast growth of sophisticated coatings, particularly fusion-bond epoxy (FBE) with really specific application procedures, has led to highly comprehensive coating specs covering every element of the process. For example, coating specs when I started in the late 1990s were possibly four or five pages in total. It is common to see 35 to even 75-page specifications, depending upon the job and scope.

With recent increased state and federal guidelines such as the Pipes Act of 2016 and the general public's increased awareness of pipelines as supplied by the media, end-users and engineers have been pressured to increase their knowledge and control pipe coating application. This has resulted in an ever-expanding level of specifications, standards, and detailed processes. The level of evaluation, and the comprehension of coatings inspectors, has also seen incredible development, with training programs such as those from NACE and SSPC (now merged as AMPP).

Regrettably, the disadvantage of this trend is that it has failed to reach the ground-level plant workers charged with surface area preparation, using the coatings and final inspection, and those responsible for reading and translating these specifications work-floor guidelines are established. The starts of the detach between the segments were indisputable and mostly unavoidable.

A Historical Perspective of Pipeline Coatings

The pioneering days of applied coatings are long over. But even in the early stages of modern pipe coating, "The typical plant worker typically had a high school education and was not always a graduate. However it was very uncommon that any had college experience at all," kept in mind Steve Garcia, the current owner of Deep South Quality Inspection and a former coating plant supervisor of 25-plus years. Garcia included, "That consisted of everybody from the ground up."

Training programs at the time were almost non-existent, and the majority of them any training was on-the-job training utilizing knowledge by far through generations of coaters. "But much of the [senior] coaters with the most experience hesitated to share their understanding," included Garcia. Fundamental job security concerns, while understandable, led to unfavorable impacts on the growing coatings industry by creating unintentional classes of plant employees, and in many cases, in supervisory and management levels too.

The engineering teams concentrated on the operational elements of pipelines for the end-users, leaving much of the coating manages to the applicators and powder coating producers. As in the plant settings, the event and transfer of understanding on the engineering side were kept within a narrow group. 

A resulting negative was "the growing space between the two sectors and the tension, if you will, between coaters and end-users," according to Mark Greenly, now a General Manager for Womble Coating.

"The sides were running completely different from each other yet attempting to reach the very same objective," Greenly stated.

Coating operators were not communicating their practical worry about the engineers, and the engineers were hardly ever experienced in the coating application at the plant level. As such, the beginnings of an internal detachment within the market were self-initiated.

Pipeline Coatings in today's Day.

In the existing industry setting, the detach between these two sectors is still present for many reasons, however, arising from various scenarios.

As previously pointed out, increased governmental and environmental participation in pipelines has forced end-users to broaden their engineering departments to conform to the broadening guidelines. The inevitable result is high-level specifications, with high-level language planned to deal with these changes, but still with really little useful knowledge of the coating application plant operations. On the plant side, regrettably, there has been very little modification in the labor force demographics, which leaves them at a great disadvantage and primed for an even higher divide.

In fact, "it is common for plant workers to hold bitterness towards engineers for their absence of real-world application constraints and production practices," stated Garcia, and vice versa for engineers to be frustrated at the coaters' lack of knowledge of regulative requirements.

A clear example of just how far the two sides have ended up being even further separated is the difference in typical wage for coating engineers and coating plant employees. However, a difference is certainly warranted as engineering degrees can cost upwards of $50,000 annually. According to current numbers, coatings engineers balance $93,000 per year in the US, whereas ground-level labor earns an average of $13.75 per hour in the United States. Which hourly price quote for plant labor may even be slightly elevated from today's actual coating plant employees' wages, considering staff turnover rates in coating plants, which leads to a greater number of entry-level wages.

This also decreases the general and particular understanding of plant workers, where employers hesitate to purchase substantial training only to have the employees seek greater wages (a benefit of the offered training) in other places, however then leaving the companies needing to start over with the next batch of freshly-hired employees constantly.

There has been a shift lately for coating applicators to work with supervisors and plant supervisors with college levels. But without hands-on coating experience and the ability to relate directions directly with the work crews, this may add to the expanding detach between the plant workers, experienced coaters, and end-users.

Nevertheless, even with well-qualified plant supervisors and supervisory staff, the growing requirement for third-party inspectors to be onsite and serving as an agent of the end-user puts a possibly unintended block on open interaction between the completion user and the coating applicators. By and large, inspectors are not mediators on behalf of completion users; however, they are witnesses and enforcers of the requirements as written, often without appropriate standardized practices. Regrettably, inspectors, even those accredited by acknowledged training programs such as NACE's CIP program, can likewise do not have a useful working understanding, which further exacerbates the divide.

Bridging these spaces between each of the sections above-- end-users and coating engineers, coating applicators, and third-party representation-- is an extensively looked-for objective throughout the market, as is evidenced by the growing interest and subscription in organizations such as AMPP. (Related reading: 9 Ways the Merger Between NACE and SSPC Will Impact Corrosion Pros.) However, reaching any unified objective in a multi-entity market needs the recognition and effort to discover a starting point attending to the issues.

Recommendations to Address the Industry Disconnect.

Based upon recommendations from Garcia and Greenly, my own experiences with each facet of the industry, and general scuttlebutt within various coating centers, the following are some specific suggestions to begin narrowing the divide:

End users and engineers charged with composing requirements would take advantage of seizing the Day to hang around in a functional coating plant, not only to get experience in the application procedure itself, however more notably to understand the proper operations and practical and economic restrictions faced by coating plant operators. Experiencing the coater's perspective first-hand might assist in comprehending a coater's reluctance to continuously change plant criteria, especially those that have no impact on coating integrity, mainly based upon efficiency and lowering operating expense always on an objection to satisfy consumer expectations. This is particularly real with small quantities where several changes can cost countless dollars in downtime.

A popular recommendation for firms that accredit inspectors is to institute apprentice-level accreditations that need a minimum number of hours with a qualified inspector before advancing to full certification. Another possibility is to include specific market recommendations that supplement basic knowledge accreditations to ensure practical experience as end-user agents.

Coating applicators must understand that policies increase and intensify and the pressure and enforcement action being directed at the end-users. Buying the education and official training of mid-to upper-level personnel not only provides a benefit to the coating market in general, however likewise leads to more efficient operations by minimizing turnover. (For some training ideas, read about some Ways to Maintain or Update Technical Skills.).

The continued development of the pipe coating market requires and relies upon successfully bridging the current detach and collaborating to provide quality applied coatings, offer safe and efficient pipelines, and fulfill full regulatory compliance. It will require the cooperation and effort of all celebrations. However, we will all be much better at it.




The Growing Disconnect in the Pipe Coating Industry Reviewed by Bedliner Review on April 21, 2021 Rating: 5

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