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Ensuring the kick-start of an XXL industrial project

T17 is the world's largest oxygen production unit, owned and operated by Air Liquide for Sasol in South Africa. As the Plant Manager, Bertus Swart was responsible for ensuring the startup of this state-of-the-art plant, with a total production capacity of 5,000 metric tons of oxygen per day. His secret? “Go beyond set goals, explore different approaches, be open to new ideas and support my team with a creative mind.”

Could you please briefly present yourself? What is your main role within the T17 project?

I am the T17 Plant Manager for Sasol in South Africa. Operating since December 2017, it is the largest air separation unit (ASU) in the world. Once the plant was commissioned and handed over from Air Liquide, I was selected to ensure internal processes and governance, put in place to achieve safe, reliable and efficient operations. To that end, I became involved in the project at an early stage, 18 months before first industrial production. My role during that short period of time was also to recruit the entire team we have today (22 people) and support it through leading by example.

Did you face any challenges?

As a leader in chemicals and energy, Sasol had high expectations for the T17 Plant in terms of safety, reliability and sustainability of their operations. In a nutshell, the major challenge was the very short time span to move the plant from its project state to operations, all while keeping in mind our customer’s needs and supporting efforts to achieve their production targets. We did everything possible, in just over a year, to make the transition phase between commissioning and operation as smooth as possible by identifying all the interfaces that require coordination with the stakeholders (customer, contractors and internal teams...). Considering our stringent reliability objective of zero incident, it was key to ensure that all protocols were completed and actions closed before commissioning the ASU. We had lots of support from various entities and international experts within the Group, notably to complete the vulnerability study of the plant in order to procure high critical parts needed at the facility.

The major challenge was the very short time span to move the plant from its project state to operations

And from a human perspective?

Recruitment within a project of this scope is a major challenge. To have a competent and effective team, it's important to identify the skillsets of each member and ensure their complementarity. It was essential to define the scope of the work so each team member could develop the appropriate competencies to meet the T17 project needs. In addition, this complexity allowed team members to further develop their skills.

How does your mission in this project illustrate the pioneering spirit that sets Air Liquide apart?

In my opinion, being a pioneer means going beyond set goals, being open to new ideas, and supporting my team through a creative spirit. It is about exploring different approaches in various areas towards our employees, customers and the local community. Working in a team with diverse backgrounds, cultures and nationalities meant that each member had to be managed differently to ensure proper and clear communications to all, in order to have the entire team functioning as one unit. This was exactly the spirit of the T17 project, which was essential to achieving our objectives and be the role model of ASU operations in the Sasol Synfuels complex.

This interview is part of a series of five interviews with pioneering Air Liquide employees who are helping to move the Group forward and build the world of the future.

Article published on January 21, 2019