Revolutionizing Refractory Maintenance: Increasing Efficiency with Specialized Equipment

Refractory maintenance, though vital, can often be a logistical and financial burden. This is especially true for power plants, cement plants, and other large facilities that rely on boilers, kilns, coolers, preheater towers, and risers for day-to-day operation. These facilities stand to lose many thousands of dollars a day in production if their refractory can’t stand up to the heat.

To avoid unnecessary production loss, most facilities take on large-scale refractory removal and re-installation during annual maintenance shutdowns. But managers know how quickly these precious weeks fly by with crews struggling to complete as many maintenance tasks as possible. Establishing an efficient refractory removal and installation process is important for maximizing productivity during these cycles, which is why many facilities employ innovative, specialized equipment that increases safety and minimizes downtime during refractory maintenance. From robotic removal to fast, ergonomic installation, here’s how facilities around the world are increasing refractory maintenance efficiency.

Demolition Robots

With their position at the heart of thermal power plants, boilers present a significant challenge to maintenance timelines when it comes to removing and re-installing refractory. Getting boilers up and running quickly is important to restarting production, but long cooldown times mean crews can’t even start descaling until well into shutdown. Additionally, descaling and debricking have traditionally relied on large crews with hand tools, such as jackhammers. This removal method comes with a number of drawbacks, including low productivity and increased risk of injury from equipment or falling debris.

To gain earlier access to boilers and kilns as well as increase safety and productivity, some power and cement facilities employ heavy-duty, remote-controlled demolition robots for descaling and debricking applications (Figure 1). These ruggedly designed machines can withstand extreme temperatures, allowing facilities to begin descaling operations earlier than with any other method. The operator remains outside the boiler, away from the heat and the risk of falling debris.

1. To gain earlier access to kilns as well as increase safety and productivity, some cement facilities employ heavy-duty, remote-controlled demolition robots for descaling and debricking applications. Courtesy: Brokk

Demolition robots also offer an unbeatable power-to-weight ratio with the most innovative models performing on par with machines three times their size. Those in the 3,500- to 8,000-pound (1,587- to 3,628-kilogram) range can safely drive across the facility using access ramps—like skid steers or other support equipment—and aren’t heavy enough to cause damage to the boiler. Despite their compact size, industry-leading models can deliver up to 855 joules of hitting power at 550 to 1,250 blows per minute.

For one independent refractory contractor, adding a demolition robot to its crew significantly reduced overhead while increasing tear-out productivity. Relying on the robot’s remote operation, the company virtually eliminated falling debris injuries, which resulted in a reduced experience modification rate (EMR) and lower insurance premiums. The contractor also reduced crew size for descaling and debricking by 75% while achieving removal rates up to 33 feet per hour (10 meters per hour). Reallocated crew members were then able to increase productivity on other tasks, leading to a boost in overall efficiency.

But boilers and kilns aren’t the only place robotic demolition is increasing productivity and safety for refractory removal. This method has been applied to coolers and feed shelves, as well. Additionally, industry-leading equipment manufacturers recently developed an innovative robotic solution for descaling in preheater towers.

Like boilers and kilns, traditional refractory removal in these vessels often involves handheld tools. However, preheater towers have an additional challenge—their vertical orientation. This requires crews to perform handheld breaking from scaffolding, resulting in long setup times, low productivity, and difficult working conditions. Erecting the scaffolding system means a slow start to maintenance—once temperatures cool enough for crews to enter at all. More importantly, though, vessel design results in workers removing hundreds of tons of overhead refractory, making the process not only physically draining but extremely dangerous.

A specially adapted demolition robot removes these hurdles, requiring zero physical contact and saving crews well over 100 hours in certain situations. The unit features the innovative, highly maneuverable three-part arm featured on some demolition robots. This is attached to the end of a platform-mounted telescopic boom. The boom is extendable by up to two sections, allowing for descaling in vessels up to 31.2 feet (9.5 meters) in diameter. Personnel never need to enter the tower thanks to remote-controlled operation, eliminating the risk of falling debris, silica dust, and other confined space hazards. Furthermore, the robot takes pneumatic equipment out of employees’ hands, reducing worker injuries and fatigue for lower operating costs.

2. The descaler demolition robot eliminates the need to have crews removing overhead refractory and can save facilities well over 100 hours in preheater tower applications. Courtesy: Brokk

The descaler demolition robot can be set up in less than three hours, depending on preheater tower specifications, saving facilities considerable time and resources compared to scaffolding. Because it is based on a heavy-duty demolition design, the descaler robot can also stand up to much hotter temperatures. This allows facilities to begin tear-out operations when the ambient temperature reaches 176F (80C), advancing their maintenance timeline significantly.

The descaler demolition robot allows power plants and other facilities to tackle refractory removal in additional areas as well, including cyclones, calciners, pyrotops, kiln inlets, “goose necks,” and gas risers.

Hydrodemolition Robots

Hydrodemolition robots provide another efficiency-enhancing solution for refractory removal in tight spaces such as risers and transfer lines. This method uses high-pressure water jets to break up refractory materials without damaging embedded V-anchors, hex mesh, or the steel mounting surface, resulting in faster, more cost-efficient maintenance.

As with demolition robots, employing Hydrodemolition allows facilities to keep crews out of the most dangerous situations through remote-controlled operation. Compact, highly versatile Hydrodemolition robots can access confined spaces with some units able to operate just 14 inches (35.6 centimeters) from the surface to be demolished. Additionally, this water-based removal method eliminates silica dust while leaving a cleaner surface that doesn’t require additional sandblasting or power washing. This not only increases safety, it also eliminates a step to accelerate maintenance timelines.

3. Hydrodemolition allows facilities to keep crews out of the most dangerous situations through remote-controlled operation. Compact, highly versatile Hydrodemolition robots can access confined spaces with some units able to operate just 14 inches (35.6 centimeters) from the surface to be demolished. Courtesy: Brokk

Hydrodemolition robots also provide a significant productivity boost compared to hand removal methods. At 18,000 psi, Hydrodemolition equipment can provide 100 times the productivity of handheld equipment, removing 9.5 cubic feet of refractory per hour compared to just 0.1 cubic foot with a 15-pound pneumatic hammer. This productivity, paired with the robot’s ability to work on vertical, horizontal, overhead, and curved surfaces without tiring, means facilities can make significant gains during refractory removal for a faster return to operation.

To maximize Hydrodemolition productivity and overall versatility, many facilities and independent contractors partner with equipment manufacturers to provide solutions tailored to their unique needs. There are several Hydrodemolition options available for refractory removal, but not all provide the same level of control and productivity. One important variable that can lead to gaps in efficiency is the distance between the nozzle and the refractory surface. Simple automated setups, such as those used in risers that feature a rotating nozzle and stabilizing ring, might have several inches between the nozzle and the refractory surface. This distance results in a significant loss in power by the time the water reaches its mark, causing operators to compensate with a higher flow rate. A high-tech robotic system operating within 0.5 inches (1.3 centimeters) of the refractory surface, on the other hand, doesn’t suffer this loss of power, creating better removal rates per pump hour as well as better fuel and water efficiency. Additionally, this type of system allows the operator to set parameters, including the lance speed and angles, as well as indexing, to optimize efficiency.

Multi-purpose Hydrodemolition robots can also be used in other areas of the facility for surface preparation and concrete repairs, providing better equipment versatility than single-use options. One such system is employed by a cement plant in Oklahoma for repairs on its concrete structures, including silos and foundations. The impact-free Hydrodemolition process eliminates microfractures and vibrations for a more durable repair in sensitive environments.

Refractory Installation

Increasing efficiency for removal is only half of the equation, though. To get production up and running again quickly, facilities also need to maximize productivity during refractory installation. Unlike removal, there is no high-tech replacement for a master mason, meaning installation can only move as fast as bricking crews. Most masons employ a bricking machine in rotary kiln applications, which offers increased productivity and better ergonomics for fast, high-quality refractory installation.

Efficiency starts with bricking machine setup. Those constructed of strong yet lightweight modular aluminum components are easy to maneuver into the kiln or boiler and can be assembled in just 60–90 minutes by an experienced crew. Steel models might take 6–8 hours and require additional support equipment. Modern bricking machines feature a pneumatic arch that raises bricks into place against the kiln shell and holds them there, eliminating the more physical aspects of traditional refractory installation. Additionally, the pneumatic arch system provides superior quality results that can extend the longevity of refractory by as much as 25%.

Bricking machines with a dual arch further increase productivity by permitting a second ring of bricks to be installed while the first is being keyed. This design features a cut-away section at the front of the arch that provides an unobstructed area to place key bricks. Machines without this feature force installers to try to find other ways to reach around the arch, reducing installation speed and, in some cases, quality. For one cement plant in the U.S., incorporating a dual-arch bricking machine with a cut-away section decreased maintenance downtime by 44%.

4. Bricking machines with a dual arch offer increased productivity by permitting installation of a second ring of bricks while the first is being keyed. This design features a cut-away section at the front of the arch that provides an unobstructed area to place key bricks. Courtesy: Brokk

Bricking machines from leading manufacturers allow masons to tailor equipment to fit the kiln and their particular process for a more comfortable experience. Machines are available in a variety of sizes. Recently, a stair-stepped deck design was released that allows support equipment, such as skid steers, to drive under the machine for more efficient brick management.

Specialized equipment can also make maintenance more efficient in vertical vessels. Custom-designed suspended platforms are being used by power plants, cement plants, and other facilities as an innovative solution for brick and spray refractory installation in boilers, lime kilns, precalciners, cyclones, ISAMELT furnaces, and preheater towers. These lightweight, heavy-duty metal platforms are erected inside the vessel and raised or lowered using manual or electric hoists for hassle-free maintenance and relining applications. Suspended platforms eliminate the need for complex scaffolding systems. Those featuring a modular design and pin-together construction can be set up in as little as two hours. For one cement facility, using a suspended platform to install a drip tube in a cyclone eliminated five days of double shifts, saving an estimated $15,000 per hour in downtime.

5. Custom-designed suspended platforms are being used by cement and other facilities as an innovative solution for brick and spray refractory installation in lime kilns, precalciners, cyclones, ISAMELT furnaces and preheater towers. Courtesy: Brokk

Additionally, suspended platforms provide ample surface area—and capacity—for personnel, tools, and materials such as refractory brick, gunning equipment, and other necessities. Refractory installation can progress faster since there’s no need to hoist supplies up and down; everything is close at hand and there’s plenty of room to move. This also reduces the physical strain on workers and the risk of falls, resulting in a safer work environment and decreased overhead.

From Start to Finish

When it comes to refractory maintenance, what comes down must also go back up before the job can be considered complete. Increasing efficiency throughout the process means facilities can start up production that much quicker. Working with specialized equipment from innovative manufacturers can greatly increase productivity, safety, and overall quality of refractory maintenance. Whether it’s a robotic solution for removal, a custom-designed platform or bricking machine for installation, or a combination of both, power plants, cement plants, and other facilities can revolutionize refractory maintenance by investing in the right tools.

Lars Lindgren is the president of Brokk Inc., the North American branch of Brokk, the world’s leading manufacturer of remote-controlled demolition machines and attachments for 45 years. He also oversees North American operations for Aquajet, the industry leader in Hydrodemolition machines and solutions. Lindgren has more than 24 years of industry and leadership experience. Heather Harding is the managing director for Bricking Solutions, a world leader in kiln refractory installation solutions. She has served in leadership positions in the industry for more than 12 years.

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