THE NEW Chevron Phillips Chemical Company LP automated chemical loading rack in Baytown, Texas, eliminates time-consuming bottlenecks caused by trucks winding through the facility, speeds up the loading process, and enhances safety for the workers.

“This is the future of automatic loading,” says Elliott Johnson, unit shipping department supervisor who oversees the facility.

Company managers knew the time was ideal for a loading rack upgrade when the decision was made to add a new Cedar Bayou alpha olefins plant that would significantly increase chemical production. Having faced the bottlenecks for some time, the company put together a cross-functional team to explore new loading systems.

“Its charter was to support the new plant while revamping the entire process of loading product for customer delivery,” says Johnson. “The team's conclusions resulted in the deployment of an automated truck loading rack system that was unprecedented in the chemicals industry.”

Before the new four-bay rack was built, trucks traveled deep into the plant, traversing multiple railroad and pedestrian crossings, a major concern for the safety-focused company.

Adding to the risk was the lack of loading-time efficiency. Cycle times for drivers to check in at security, get to the scales, weigh in, load, weigh again, and check out could take more than an hour. Loading was labor-intensive and produced inconsistent volume. In addition, the manual paper-based record keeping system was time-consuming, inefficient, and subject to errors.

“We knew self-service loading models were already common in the gasoline industry,” says Jim Burton, logistics supervisor at the plant. “We didn't see any reason it couldn't apply to our chemical products, too.”

Chevron Phillips began with a core application from software vendor Fisher-Rosemount, a subsidiary of Emerson Electric Company. Throughout 1999, software development was concurrent with physical construction. Chevron Phillips project engineers worked with an outside construction contractor to assemble loading arms, metering systems, drive lanes, and venting systems. The first shipment was loaded April 26, 2000.

Today, tank trailers are loaded in just over 20 minutes at a rate of 300 to 400 gallons per minute. Cycle times have been reduced by approximately 50%. “We recently ran 54 trucks through here in a 12-hour shift, using just two of our four lanes,” says Burton.

A Scully system governs overfill protection. A Brooks Petro Count meter measures product.

Speed wasn't the only criteria for the loading rack. Chevron Phillips wanted to improve driver ergonomics by making the equipment more conveniently located. CE Loading Systems loading arms are placed so that they swing into place at waist height. To coordinate the equipment, Chevron Phillips requires its core carriers, Dupré Transport Inc and Dynegy, to specify trailer-mounted loading hardware to match the waist-high rack equipment.

In addition to the ergonomic improvements, the rack configuration has reduced the number of personnel needed for the loading process. What once required three to four people now takes only two — the driver, who loads, and a supervising Chevron Phillips employee.

While the loading process is quick, efficient, and comfortable for drivers, it has an even greater reward — safety. Because product is bottom loaded in a closed-loop arrangement, the chance of static electricity build up that could spark a fire has been greatly reduced. Keeping drivers off the top of trailers is another safety plus because it reduces the risk of injury from falls.

Another advantage that no one could have predicted before the United States was attacked by terrorists September 11 is the rack's advanced security system. The loading rack is easily accessible from the freeway and operates around the clock, so the company knew that security measures were needed.

The system used at the Cedar Bayou loading rack allows Chevron Phillips personnel to control gate entry and easily activate manual or automated lockouts. Tank truck drivers who arrive at the gate use a three-strike PIN entry system that prevents unauthorized access. The system includes a magnetic key card that contains the driver's commercial driver license number and information about the carrier.

To enter the facility, drivers swipe the card and enter the assigned PIN number, the order number, and pre-assigned trailer number. The system validates the information and automatically calculates and maximizes the load, based on trailer capacity or maximum gross highway weight. Product weight, density, and specific gravity are the basis for determining the calculations.

“Because it's a self-service system, we have a number of checks and balances in place to guarantee order accuracy,” says Burton. “The trailer must match the order record so that the driver picks up the right product for the assigned trailer. The system automatically optimizes load volumes and ensures more consistent and accurate deliveries than were possible with the older systems. By maximizing the load, we can be sure our customers receive the full value of the freight charge.”

Drivers benefit from the system, as well. Often paid by the load rather than by the hour, they simply drive up, load, seal the valves, enter the seal numbers, collect bills of lading at the office, and drive off. That means no lost time for them.

“If they have questions, there is always a Chevron Phillips operator close by who monitors the system with strategically placed television cameras,” Burton adds.

The new-found efficiency doesn't end at the rack. The Microsoft Windows-based software is easy to use and more flexible than the old paper-based system, says Burton. Instead of waiting on inter-office mail or fax, Chevron Phillips laboratory, finance, or integrity specialists can access the data they need via the corporate intranet. System data is fed directly to the company's back-end financial systems, eliminating a layer of manual entry and ensuring invoices are timely and accurate.

“While it once took a day to get data to finance for billing, it now takes just minutes,” says Burton.

The system automatically generates all required paperwork, such as bills of lading and lab analysis certifications. The system makes it easy to customize laboratory reports to meet customer requirements, which are often quite specific, he says.

Although the technology has proved its advantages, deploying the new system required some adjustments to culture and processes at Chevron Phillips. “The transfer of ownership for the preload inspection process was difficult to let go of,” says Burton. “We were used to our own staff doing the inspections, which are very important for quality control. But we have worked to build a strong partnership and high level of trust with our core trucking companies and their drivers who now do the inspections. However, we continue to conduct periodic random inspections for quality assurance.”

Drivers from Dupré are dispatched from an on-site center provided to the carrier by Chevron Phillips.

To meet the standards required by the chemical company, Dupré specifies Heil DOT407 tank trailers with 9,000-gallon capacity. Dynegy provides tank trailers with 7,000- to 7,500-gallon capacity. Trailers are equipped with Girard chemical vapor recovery systems and Scully overfill protection systems. Probes are mounted just in front of the dome box.

Bottom loading and vapor recovery for chemical trailers are relatively new concepts for the tank truck industry. The Chevron Phillips loading facility is one of the first to initiate the processes.

In addition to setting equipment requirements, Chevron Phillips requires core carriers to send their drivers to the facility for four to six weeks of training before the drivers can be authorized to use the loading rack. Chevron Phillips and Dupré personnel conduct the training, which includes plant guidelines, fire and safety, and loading procedures. When the training is completed, drivers are issued an identification card and PIN number and are ready to begin loading product at the high-tech facility.

The Chevron Phillips decision to move to an automatic rack system, as well as tank trailer bottom-loading and vapor control, indicates the company's focus on efficiency and safety that raises the bar for future development across the industry.