From the Andes Mountains to the Mekong Delta
An itinerary of permanent learning
Reflections from my experience
In my previous writing, illustrating the topic of building trust, I outlined in a very general way the itinerary that took me from project to project, from the Andes mountain range in Colombia to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, giving me a life of permanent learning. I share some of those learnings in the story below…
In the highlands of Boyacá — Colombia…
At the beginning of the eighties, the first links of the practical learning chain were forged. I was working with Jaime Becerra, for SADE S.A. We were in charge of the works with sliding forms that SADE S.A. did as a contractor for the DISTRAL SA-MITSUBISHI HEAVY INDUSTRIES consortium.
DISTRAL SA was a very large Colombian company. Their main activity was the manufacture and assembly of boilers. They were involved in most of the projects that were carried out in Colombia with this type of equipment. MITSUBISHI, supplied the turbines and generators.
In a five-year period, we built the chimneys and silos of all the thermoelectric plants that were built in Colombia during that period.
A decade later, Jaime and I partnered and formed a small engineering and construction company that we called COBETO (Constructora Becerra Torres Cía. Ltda.). At that time, our old colleague and friend Jairo García had already established FOSTER INGENIERIA, a company dedicated to the design and supply of industrialized modular forms.
The Engineer Camilo García, Manager of CONSTRUCCIONES Y MONTAJES DISTRAL (CMD), accepted the joint proposal we made with Jairo to build the silos and the pre-heater tower for the works of the reconversion of the cement factory in HOLCIM at Nobsa, where CMD was one of two general contractors.
Some years later, Jairo recommended us to the contractors of the second line of Cemex’s cement factory in Caracolito, near Ibagué, where we built the silos in consortium with the Mexican contractor MEDRANO Y ASOCIADOS.
In the Rocky Mountains — Utah (USA)…
The work in the Cemex factory gave Gabriel Medrano the confidence and trust to invite us to represent him in a supervisory job at the Holnam plant in Devil’s Slide, Utah, USA.
The initial assignment to supervise the construction of the silos became a greater responsibility when the contractor for that work, American Marietta, suddenly declared bankruptcy, leaving the works unfinished. So, a very small project management team, four people including the team leader, took control of all the unfinished works and practically without interruption or major delays over the initial schedule and to a large extent within budget the works were completed. The unfinished contract with the bankrupt initial contractor was liquidated, without going to court, the claims for payments and high compensation by subcontractors and suppliers for services rendered to that project were satisfactorily closed.
A few months after my return to Colombia from the United States, HOLDERBANK, Canada, invited me to be part of the management team responsible for the renovation and technological update of the Cement Factory of Cienfuegos, in Cuba, a project that, to the technical difficulties of a larger scale modification in the existing structures to house the new equipment with more capacity, added the even greater difficulties, related to the contractual management and the enormous resource limitations of the environment.
Cementos Cienfuegos SA was the first large basic industry company in Cuba, formed as a “mixed” company, in which ownership is shared, as in a joint-stock company, between the socialist state and a capital company.
Harmonize two “business” cultures so diametrically opposed, and carry out the works with the criteria of quality, budget and execution time according to European standards, in an environment with many shortcomings and restrictions on the “capitalist” concepts of stimulating workers; gave rise to multiple obstacles that made this project a challenge and an unparalleled experience.
With an extraordinary point in favor, the two cultures shared the priority of safety over any other concept, and the superior level of formal education and general culture of all the workers, made this aspect the most rewarding of the execution of the project.
In the heart of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania…
A year and a half later, upon completion of the construction of the Water Sports Complex in Bogotá, I joined the team that was in charge of modernizing Holcim’s cement factory in Campulung, in Romania.
The project consisted of converting the existing clinker production plant with four furnaces into a plant with the same capacity with a single furnace, adding the processes of pre- homogenization of raw materials and the use of alternative fuels.
I was in charge of civil works, but from the initial discussions of process engineering and general arrangements, I became involved in issues related to the other disciplines.
Memorable were the conversations with the highly experienced engineers from the German silo design firm, the discussions related to deep foundations between the German-educated Romanian professor of geotechnics and the Belgian-educated Greek builder; the talks with the Romanian consultant, specialist in structural design, emeritus professor at the University of Bucharest on the project structures and the validation of the design of the pre-homogenization hall, an space structure with 84 meters of free span, designed in Canada by a Colombian-Canadian consultant.
The execution phase was a permanent engineering exercise, and particularly, the implementation of construction methods with the construction contractors.
An example was the decision to centralize with an Austrian supplier the high-capacity cranes; guaranteeing equipment operated and maintained in optimal conditions and the provision of timely service. Specific examples of the success of this decision were the supply of the 500 ton capacity telescopic crane for the erection of the clinker silos roof and equipment and the repair of the tower crane used in the construction of the structure and assembly of the pre-heater equipment. An event in which the supplier used a helicopter to replace the engine of the tower crane, installed in the counterweight at a height of 140 meters, so that the crane, essential for the execution of the works, was only out of service for three days.
At a certain point in the project, I had to assumed, in addition to the functions of the civil works management, the general construction management of the project. From that stage, I particularly remember the implementation of the alternative fuels project, in all its phases from design to construction and commissioning, including the preliminary and temporary phase for the use of tires as an alternative fuel at the calcine stage of the clinker production.
Back to the origin,
The following year and a half, in Colombia, in Nobsa, assigned by the organization in Switzerland to support a project in crisis. It was the construction of a new cement grinding line including a multi cell cement silo;the structural engineering peer reviewers found critical discrepancies in the developed engineering, and the project started to experience delays creating an internal conflict with the operational and financial team and other conflict with the construction contractors.
Rarely have I worked so hard with such a capable team, with results difficult to evaluate from the perspectives of execution time and cost, but objectively from the aspects of safety and quality, two million man-hours without disabling work accidents (LTI) and a grinding station (Cement Mill 3), historically producing above its nominal capacity with the best operational availability and efficiency indices.
From the origin to the antipodes, to the island of Java, in Indonesia,
I arrived to Asia appointed as a construction manager in the project management team for the construction of a cement factory, close to the sea, in Tuban, to produce 4000 tons of Clinker per day and dispatch one and a half million tons of cement per year, with a jetty-type port facility.
The construction work of the buildings and the supply and assembly of the equipment related to the clinker and cement production process were carried out under an engineering, supply and construction (EPC) contract; port facilities with the modality of “packages” with contracts at fixed prices; and infrastructure with in-house engineering and unit price contracts with local contractors.
The EPC contract, of great technical and constructive complexity, and apparently the least complex from the perspective of contractual management, became a space of permanent confrontation and open claims. This environment prevented more timely solutions from being found to the problems that always arise in the development of a work, despite the fact that the parties assigned a highly competent team of highly qualified professionals and contractors to the project. Market conditions made it urgent to double the plant’s capacity; Paradoxically, this circumstance made it possible to close the accumulated differences in the first contract and advance a second on better terms.
In the development of the contract for the construction of the civil works of the jetty, it was possible to implement a “partnering” (cooperation) scheme for the management of contractual relationships, which made it possible to significantly improve the quality of the original design by applying the concept of “ value-added engineering ”; and to overcome the obstacle that meant the loss of the main construction equipment owned by the contractor, equipment that was wrecked in the Pacific when it was towed to the work site; a situation that could have ended in the courts and without work and that was corrected in an exercise in which the parties established their positions in a transparent manner to reach solutions and compromises that allowed the work to be successfully concluded.
Confidence taking me to new confines: Cambodia and the Mekong Delta …The results of those five years of work were the recommendation to join the management team of the construction of a plant in Cambodia. A successful project, which merits its own story. …