Heavy metal


heavy METAL



when Alcan Primary Metals Group decided to rehab its aluminum plant in the village of Alma, Québec, Canada, it faced all the usual project management challenges. But the team also had to find a way to construct the multimillion-dollar facility without affecting the quaint little town's villegature or tourist culture.

Alma, population 40,000, is well-known for year-round recreational activities from kayaking to snowshoeing. “The residents don't want noise pollution or dust,” says Pierre Gagnon, PMP, large engineering group project manager at Montréal, Québec, Canada-based Alcan. “They don't want gas emissions that are unfriendly, because people here are very close to nature.”

In 2000, Alcan commissioned engineering firm BPR-Bechtel, also based in Québec, to equip the plant with potlining facilities for repairing and replacing pots used in the aluminum extraction process.

Relying on thorough project preparation and tight scope management, the team finished the project five months early and CN$13 million under the initial budget. The team also managed to preserve Alma's villegature. Indeed, a bicycle path borders the plant's campus. “This way, people can see that it's been built to respect the environment,” says François Crevier, project manager, BPR-Bechtel. “They can see that it is something beautiful surrounding the community.”


Freezing temperatures often mean delays and setbacks for construction projects. To stay ahead of the weather and make the best out of Québec, Canada's frigid winters, the project managers working on the Alma potlining facility minimized workers’ exposure to cold conditions. As soon as the grounds were prepared for construction, the foundations were laid and the structural steel was already being assembled and placed, followed by the roof and walls, explains Pierre Gagnon, PMP, at Alcan. The permanent heating and lighting systems were also put in place as soon as possible, he says. That step allowed team members to install the processing equipment indoors during the winter months—and not be stuck in a cold and dark environment.

“The workers didn't have to work in minus 30, minus 40 degrees Celsius,” Mr. Gagnon says. “This allowed the project to go forward much more quickly, and we were able ... to save a lot of money.”

Sound Beginnings

Alcan first commissioned BPR-Bechtel to construct the aluminum smelter that was to be equipped with the potlining facility in 1998. Located on a plot of rolling hills about three kilometers from Alma, the smelter went online in 2001, producing more than 400,000 metric tons per year.

The decision to stagger the start of the potlining center was part of Alcan's value-driven strategy. “You don't want to build it while you're building the smelter, because you won't need it until a few years later,” Mr. Gagnon says. “The idea is that you invest the money in such a way that all stakeholders get the best value for their money.”

When it came time to add the potlining capabilities, BPR-Bechtel was again commissioned for the engineering, procurement and construction of the CN$60.9 million project. The company's responsibilities included furnishing the plant with an 8,700-square-meter potlining center designed for repairing 432 pots at a peak-period rate of five per week. It also was to construct an employee service building with a lunchroom, shower and changing facilities.

Right from the start, the team's challenge was to determine how to maintain quality while achieving the highest cost savings. One of the ways it worked toward that goal was by empowering everyone to question standards and norms, Mr. Gagnon says.




Reevaluating the technical standards initially outlined in the scope helped shave 21 percent off of the initial budget—resulting in millions of dollars in savings. “Every component of the facility—from steel, design, mechanical equipment, dust-collector systems, lighting systems to electrical distribution systems—was reevaluated,” Mr. Crevier says.

Stick to the Schedule

Coordinating the approximately 200 team members—engineers, construction workers and contractors—without losing any time and even staying ahead of schedule, was no easy feat. With 66 percent of the construction contracts granted locally, project managers had to keep all of the outside contractors on track with the rest of team.

During the preparation phase, the project team developed schedules for construction, engineering and procurement. The management team relied on weekly follow-up reviews to track progress and avoid slowdowns and interruptions.

March 2000 image Project preparation begins
21 January 2003 image Project begins
17 March 2003 image Construction starts
15 July 2004 image Project completed

To ensure the safety of all stakeholders—power authorities, the surrounding community, workers—the project team adhered to an environmental, health and safety policy in line with an impact study conducted during site preparation for the original smelter. “Everything had to be built according to very strict guidelines imposed by different government levels, whether it be at the municipal level, provincial or federal level,” he explains.

In a work environment where accidentally carrying a soda can into the reduction facility can result in an explosion, the project team raised the bar on safety. An accident-prevention consultant was brought into the planning process to help ensure an obstacle-free work area by preventing overlap in construction contracts and limiting the number of workers in the same place at the same time. The effort resulted in a safe and organized work environment. “What outshines every action is that there were no lost-time accidents during the project,” Mr. Crevier says. “The safety record at the end of about 200,000 work hours-zero lost-time injuries—is a stealer.”

Freeze Out

Actively involving the entire team in all phases of planning and decision-making ensured everyone understood the project scope from the beginning. “Before the project even started in terms of engineering, the team got together and established procedures and the work process,” Mr. Gagnon says. “When you're structured in this way, it makes project management and accomplishing the project itself more straightforward and more clear and transparent when everybody knows what his or her roles and responsibilities are.”

The team also kept things under control—and saved a bunch of money—by adopting a tactic it dubbed “freezing the scope.” By carefully managing the scope during the project preparation, the team avoided any major changes after the project planning and control documents were approved, according to Mr. Gagnon.

“It's as if you were going down a whitewater river raft, so it's not really time to change things,” he says. “When you do, you have to start your engineering and your purchasing over again and that costs a lot more money.”

BPR-Bechtel's existing relationship with Alcan proved to be an asset as well. Because the project team included veterans who had previously collaborated on similar large-scale projects, the integrated project team was able to boost efficiency.

Cost: CN$60.9 million

Savings: Shaved 21 percent off initial budget

Schedule: Finished five months ahead of schedule

Safety: Achieved zero lost-time injuries in a total of 200,000 work hours

Alma Matters

As the project progressed, the project managers had to respect the town's residents as much as the project's schedules and scope. “During the construction, there was noise and additional traffic controlled in accordance with a daily schedule agreed with the local community,” Mr. Crevier says.

Alcan project managers also tried to reassure the public through a communications effort in the newspapers and on the radio.

The potlining project at Alma finished in July 2004, under budget and ahead of schedule. In 2005, it went on to win the Project of the Year award from the PMI Montréal Chapter and was named one of PMI’s Project of the Year 2006 finalists.

And Alma didn't have to sacrifice its small-town charm—even through all that noise and traffic. PM