Article | Cars, Computers and Valves

This article is intended to identify some common misconceptions regarding industrial valves and valve purchasing. There is a big gap between the perceived value of valves as compared to the actual cost of ownership.

We Need a New Way of Thinking

It’s very common to see valve specifications that are ten, fifteen, twenty or even thirty years out of date. There is a great reluctance of plant operators to vary from the valve designs and configurations that were current when the plant was first built. We identify this reluctance under three different scenarios. We’ll call these

  • Obsolete at Birth
  • Nobody Ever Got Fired For Buying IBM
  • 1975 Called and They Want Their Valve Back

Obsolete at Birth

There are valve designs and manufacturers who produce valves that were obsolete when they were first designed and have never been improved. An example is a brand of knife gate valves common in Western Canada, whom will remain nameless. Their plant in Western Canada was established in 1955 to build fire hydrants, municipal water valves and knife gate valves. The fire hydrants and municipal valves were duplicates of similar valves made in their plant in Eastern Canada using designs dating from 1903. The knife gate valves were a new design in 1955 and were designed to meet the TAPPI TIS-405-8 standard for pulp stock knife gate valves. The valves were soon found in every pulp and paper mill in Western Canada.

In 1979, when I visited their factory in Western Canada, they were making valves the same way they made them in 1955. Raw casting was poured in the foundry, and then sent for machining at their in-house machine shop. Transferring the castings to the machine shop involved a laborer placing the castings in a wheelbarrow and walking the wheelbarrow over to the machine shop, where the castings were dumped into a big pile to await machining. This factory was not going to be at the leading edge of valve design, and in fact it closed in 1990, unable to compete with cheaper valves coming in from outside of North America.

These new offshore valve factories didn’t improve on the design of the valve, they just copied it and came up with a source of cheaper labour. In the current North American market, there are probably two dozen major and minor valve manufacturers meeting the TAPPI TIS-405-8 standards, but only one or two manufacturers have actually made improvements to the basic design dating back to 1955. These designs ignore any improvements in production methods, metallurgy, materials science and new synthetic materials that didn’t exist in the 50’s.

Nobody Ever Got Fired for Buying IBM

At the same time in 1979 when I visited the valve plant in Western Canada, most medium and large business ran their accounting and inventory control systems using a computer system supplied by IBM – Big Blue. Sure, there were other computer manufacturers in the market, but Digital, HP, Data General and other competitors were only a small percentage of the business computer market. IBM had something none of the other makers had – a massive installed base that meant it was easy for IBM salespeople to leverage their existing customers as a method to get new customers.

The people buying the IBM systems knew one thing – that if they specified a Data General system, and the implementation of the DG computer system ran into snags and delays, then fingers would be pointed and the dreaded “XYZ Company bought an IBM system and they’re up and running already” would be heard in the company boardroom. The person who decided on Data General ran a great risk of losing their job.

This issue exists today in many engineering firms and industrial plants when it comes time to specify new valves or replace existing valves. It’s very common to see valve data sheets listing products from manufacturers who have been out of business for decades.

We also see approved manufacturer lists that calls for specific valve manufacturers that exist but have drastically changed their products or their product sourcing. “ABC Valve” may have at one time manufactured their products in North America, but now ABC valves are churned out by a contract manufacturer in China and no longer bear the slightest resemblance to the original design. Worse yet, the old and new part numbers are the same so there’s no way to distinguish between the good quality old valve and the mediocre quality new valve.

As long as the replacement valve is the same as the existing valve that failed, then the results will probably be the same. The replacement valve will fail in a similar manner and after a similar service life, nobody will get in trouble for varying from dogma, and nothing will ever improve.

1975 Called and They Want Their Valve Back

Too often, valve selection is based on conditions that no longer exist. The operating conditions of pressure, temperature, process volume and energy costs are drastically different than they were only 30 years ago. Maintenance staff are fewer, piping systems are operating under higher pressures and temperatures, and the push to produce more revenue from fewer resources is greater than ever before.

In 1979 I owned a 1975 Ford Torino, a mid-range car for 1979. Lots of power, comfortable, even reasonably well made in comparison to other cars of the same vintage. Except today it’s hopelessly obsolete and is no longer capable of functioning in today’s environment. It won’t fit in the parking spaces at the mall, and it costs too much to run. In 1975 a gallon of gas was $0.57, so the Torino’s 12 to 15 miles per gallon was acceptable. Today gas is $5.50 per gallon and it’s unlikely we’ll see gas at $0.57 a gallon any time in the foreseeable future.

No engineer, plant owner or maintenance manager would ever specify a 1975 Torino as a new company vehicle, but they will cheerfully order a valve designed in 1975. Maybe the 1975 valve is perfectly adequate for the operating conditions, but there’s a very good chance technology has improved and a new design will be lighter, easier to automate and offers greater service life. Notice I didn’t say cheaper – better technology costs money to acquire. The flip side is that new technology properly implemented will make money. Using a design from 1975 may still be a viable solution, but it begs the question – have there been any improvements in valve technology that could provide better service life or greater operational efficiency?

Conclusions

The factors that impede selection of the most cost-effective valves for any specific application are not difficult to quantify. The first logical step is to ignore acquisition cost until all other factors have been clearly established. The cheapest valve may not be the best, the bleeding-edge technology of super-exotic alloy and untried design may not be cost effective either.

It’s up to the valve specifier and the valve supplier to develop open and effective methods of communication to examine circumstances with the intent to establish the lowest cost of ownership. The effort spent deciding which applications need review and which applications just need a valve that’s “good enough” will generate savings far in excess of the cost of the review.

We see massive increases in plant automation to make up for the reduction in operating personnel at the plant level. What used to be five hundred employees at a paper mill is now two hundred employees with higher net output.

Valve buyers and specifiers need to review their applications to insure that the valves installed today are going to be useable within tomorrow’s increased demands for productivity at lower costs.

  • Is it cheaper to stick with the old, or is it better to risk the new? Cheaper on what basis? Is a $150 valve that wears out in six months more cost-effective than a $1,500 valve that lasts five years?
  • Is Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) regarding new products preventing you from investigating valve solutions that could save time and money and increase production by reducing downtime?
  • Will the manually-operated replacement valves ordered today be suitable for automation in the future?
  • Can the risk of the new be mitigated by careful review of existing installations of similar valves?
  • Does your valve supplier keep track of installations and applications?

The CGIS logo proudly proclaims that we supply “The World’s Best Valves”. The only criteria we use to define “The World’s Best Valves” is the only criteria that matters to you – which valve will be the best choice for your application, the valve that provides the lowest cost of ownership.

Written by Sheldon Jaffe

Senior Applications Engineering, CGIS

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