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Emergency maintenance for offshore gas platform

Oil & Gas Products News May, 2003 — A catastrophic lubrication malfunction caused a failure in a Philadelphia Gear gearbox on an offshore gas production platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The platform, owned by one of the world's largest petrochemical companies, utilized gearboxes designed for high-speed pumping applications. On average, the platform generated approximately $1.5 million of revenue a day for its parent company - one of the top five petrochemical companies in the world.


In the case of the offshore platform, the lubrication malfunction would prove particularly damaging - the platform was located miles from shore and faced severe logistical challenges for the repair and re-installation of the damaged gearbox.


Effective lubrication is extremely critical to high-speed gearboxes, especially when there is metal-to-metal contact. The gearbox was a compressor drive located between a gas turbine and a gas compressor, and was used for pumping material through undersea lines directly to the customer's processing plants located on shore. The damaged gearbox required an externally "forced" lubrication system (as opposed to an internally designed "splash" lubrication system).

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It is typical for such offshore platforms to have stored an additional lubrication unit designated as a "critical spare." However, on this particular platform, the lubrication failure was so abrupt that it went unnoticed - until a lack of lubrication led to the gearbox failure. This lack of lubrication caused the babbitt (an alloy material used to line the sleeve bearings) to actually melt within minutes of the malfunction. In addition, the gear set - now turning at approximately 14,000 RPM - soon became overheated due to a lack of lubrication, causing the gear teeth to crack and break apart inside the gearbox.

The offshore platform had only one compressor drive installed, so when the gearbox blew, it effectively shut the platform down. The timing of the failure was not ideal, as the staff was rushing to meet a production deadline (with severe penalties if the contract wasn't fulfilled on time).


If the teeth of the compressor drive had not been broken, personnel on the rig would have attempted to repair it by changing the sleeve bearings or replacing the external lubricator. But once it became clear that the gear teeth were irreparably damaged, the customer outsourced the repair job to Philadelphia Gear's Regional Service Center in Houston, Texas.


Long term wear on the damaged gear set.

The staff at the offshore platform contacted Wylie Wilson, Southeast Regional Manager and Operations Manager at the Houston Regional Facility. Wilson authorized direct shipment of the damaged gear set and bearings to Houston for inspection and evaluation, and the parts were shipped via helicopter from the offshore rig to the airport, where a courier delivered them. At the Houston facility, the parts underwent the following examination:

  • A magnetic particle inspection of all gear elements. Magnetic particle inspection is a sophisticated black light test revealing pits, cracks, and other damage.
  • A visual inspection of bearings to evaluate cause of failure.
  • The normal process of measuring and charting the tooth geometry was unnecessary due to the severity of the gear damage.


After completion of the examination, a comprehensive report was sent to the customer advising them of the inspection results. Also suggested within the report was an expedited lead-time of four weeks for replacement of the gear set - half the industry standard.


The repaired gear set after regrind.

Faced with a looming production deadline, Philadelphia Gear offered the staff at offshore platform an interim platform -producing a set of "tough-hardened" gears that could operate at a reduced service factor. Though a temporary set would not be carburized, it would last a minimum of six weeks, allowing the platform to continue operations while Philadelphia Gear manufactured a more permanent replacement set.


Upon receiving enthusiastic approval of the interim plan, Philadelphia Gear manufactured and balanced the tough- hardened gear set to AGMA quality 14 accuracy, inspecting them, testing them, and getting the set back to the offshore platform in only four days.


The quick turnaround in producing the temporary gear set enabled the platform to begin operation again, while Philadelphia Gear was able to manufacture and ship the permanent set of carburized gears in three weeks, less than half the normal 6-8 week turnaround time. All parts and workmanship carried Philadelphia Gear's "best in industry" one year warranty. Though the warranty allows up to six additional months in which to re-install a gearbox, it certainly wasn't applicable in this case




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