Industrial structures constitute the infrastructure of our energy, petrochemical, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors. These structures differ from the general building stock, because their form and function are integral. Their function is often to support and contain industrial processes that would constitute extreme loads for common buildings, be it thermal extremes, intense pressure, or highly corrosive/toxic materials. Because of this, gaining a thorough understanding of the performance of industrial structures requires a multi-disciplinary, holistic approach that incorporates the expertise of structural, chemical, and mechanical engineers, as well as materials scientists.
For more than 40 years, Exponent has investigated the causes of and solutions to complex problems associated with industrial process engineering and plant construction. Our consultants have expertise across 90+ disciplines in science, engineering, and construction management, and can convey the results of our work in clear and succinct terms to facilitate settlement of disputes, avoid repeat failures, and improve operational performance. Our multi-disciplinary teams have investigated accidents, structural collapses, delays, construction claims, and process failures across diverse industries, including petrochemicals, power generation, pharmaceuticals, basic materials, water/wastewater treatment, manufacturing, and high technology. In nearly all cases, we are asked to help separate process and operational issues from design and installation problems. These efforts require specialized process knowledge, understanding of structural and other support system components, and construction management expertise to clearly delineate the role of all parties involved in the project.
As an example, temperatures within industrial glass furnaces can exceed 1650 ºC (3000 ºF)1. Steel furnace walls are typically protected by refractory material (often composed of special concrete, ceramic, or masonry) that can withstand high temperatures and are chemically inert. Although the refractory material accounts for only 3% of its cost2, the furnace’s life (and functional efficiency) is often limited by the failure or premature consumption of the protective refractory. Common failure mechanisms include thermal shock (thermal gradients cause differential expansion, and the structure tears itself apart), chemical attack, or erosion. Investigation of failed refractory damage requires knowledge of the constitutive properties of the material; response of the refractory, insulation, and containment structure to extreme thermal excursions; and the chemical interaction between the process and container.
Examples of other industrial structures that often require specialized, multi-disciplinary expertise include:
- Industrial stacks (chimneys) often exhaust corrosive gasses that can attack construction materials, particularly in the presence of condensate or other moisture. Evaluation of material failures, be they corrosion of steel components or rebar, or degradation of concrete or masonry liners, requires a holistic approach that combines structural and chemical engineering.
- Demands on industrial storage structures such as tanks, silos, and bins are a function of the nature of the stored material. Bulk materials can have very different behavior with respect to loading/unloading regimes, wall friction, arching, and burst pressure. Materials can also have harmful reactions with the construction materials, often leading to premature steel corrosion or embrittlement. Large tanks and silos are outside the expertise of most structural engineers, requiring advanced analysis for realistic behavior prediction and unique construction methods.
- Power turbines and heat recovery steam generators (HRSGs) are designed to accommodate large movement due to thermal expansion and contraction, yet they require fine construction tolerances for operational efficiency. These sometimes competing criteria mandate sophisticated analysis that must account for transient thermal gradients and long-term deformations due to soil settlement and concrete creep.
Our services include:
- Investigation of accidents that could have been caused by design errors/omissions, incorrect or poor-quality installation, or improper operation
- Investigation and repair/retrofit of structural or support system failures, or recovery from premature equipment break-down
- Determining the cause(s) for systemic operational problems, or efficiency that does not meet owner expectations
- Assessing construction methods, and the potential effects of associated project delays on plant production
- Assistance resolving payment and work scope disputes