Following the posts on this blog combined with several discussions on Linkedin, some people have chosen not to express their views in public, but have written to me on a 1-to-1 basis.
The most common thread among the private responses has been:
- Only a full investigation will truly determine all the contributing factors, their sequence, their “weighting” in terms of the contribution they made to the line closure and the extent to which they could have been prevented.
- The range of possible contributing factors goes way beyond what was initially reported. A 20 metre long pot full of molten metal, with so much electricity running through it, and with its temperature at roughly 950c, is a highly delicate and somewhat unpredictable situation to manage. One correspondent described it to me as being “like a patient in intensive care. The doctor must continuously check the vital signs, and adjust the medicines and conditions carefully to ensure the patient (the new start up pot) survives and gets to full health. Rushing it is not an option.
- That last point was also a common thread in the correspondence I received on the subject. While everyone who wrote to me acknowledged that they were not involved in the Ma’aden start up, they all said that a start up must not be rushed. Several expressed concern that Alcoa’s rush to manage cash flow, reduce costs and achieve milestones could have compromised the start up process.
- Everyone agreed that the AP37 technology that is installed in Ma’aden should have been no surprise to any experienced start-up team. It’s a well known, proven technology. Several writers expressed puzzlement at how the pot control system could have been at fault. The Pechiney standard template called for Alpsys technology, and this would have been mandatory in the licence agreement, according to some correspondents.
- Most agreed that the process of getting Line 1 back up and running is likely to take longer than the 6 months suggested by the official announcement from Alcoa. However, there was some disagreement as to whether the pots would have suffered enough damage to need relining. It comes down to how they dig out the metal, said one
- The biggest worry expressed by those who wrote to me was that lessons from line 1 may not be applied, or applied rigorously enough, in line 2. The rush to get metal flowing should not overrule the need to take corrective actions.
One writer saw a bright side to the situation at Ma’aden. He hopes that the delays at Ma’aden will cause Alcoa to delay execution of the smelter at Point Henry. It is not the same cash cost basis, but the fact that Alcoa did not declare force majeure with its customers (I understand it did with its suppliers), means that Alcoa needs to get replacement metal from somewhere.