A new dimension for the plant floor

The benefits of 3D modeling are so compelling that it's now considered mandatory for large-scale plant projects. While this is great for design-build, what about the remaining 28 years of the plant's life?
By Robert Shear March 1, 2009

During the past 20 years, 3D tools and workflows have become the norm in plant design, engineering and construction. The benefits are so compelling that 3D is now considered mandatory for large-scale plant projects. While this is great for design-build, what about the remaining 28 years of the plant’s life?

A growing number of plant managers and owners are now eying 3D as a logical next step in improving plant efficiency, uptime and safety. In this article, we explore an emerging movement to bring 3D tools and workflows into plant operations and maintenance.

The benefits of 3D tools and workflows are clear: our brains are wired for 3D and plants are built in 3D. Flattening the 3D plant into a series of 2D representations and then having our brain “rebuild” them in 3D introduces several levels of complexity and many opportunities for error. In fact, today virtually every design and engineering discipline, from car design to civil engineering, relies on 3D computer models to streamline the design and fabrication process.

The sheer complexity of process plants and the astronomical cost of change-orders have put plant design at the forefront of 3D for 20 years. While the commercial building community is just now adopting 3D models and workflows (called BIM for Building Information Modeling ), 3D is a mature and proven practice in plant design and construction.

In addition to the obvious benefits of clash detection and visualization, a proven 3D benefit is the way it encourages alignment at an early stage in the design-build process. Rather than relying on myriad specialized schematics and diagrams, a 3D model lets all stakeholders, from the plant manager to the instrument technician, interact with the virtual plant and contribute to the final design before it is set in steel and concrete.

Just as the plant community pushed the 3D envelope for design-build, we see signs that they will be among the first to bring 3D into facility operation and maintenance. Many leading plant owners and operators are now looking beyond design-build to leverage the value of 3D throughout the plant lifecycle. While these concepts are currently in the pilot stage, Autodesk is always interested in products and technologies that will bring intuitive 3D tools to everyone in the plant %%MDASSML%% not just to dedicated CAD experts.

Extending 3D across the plant lifecycle

The core of the 3D design-build workflow is the 3D model. The model facilitates coordination of a multitude of tasks including placing tanks, routing pipe, locating structural steel, detecting clashes and performing walkthroughs, to name a few. Plant engineering models are incredibly detailed and comprehensive, typically requiring operators specially trained on high-end software. Simply viewing a model often requires dedicated software operators.

So what happens to the plant model once the engineering firm turns over the keys to the operator? Like documents, it gets stale. The reasons? Constant repairs, retrofits and upgrades mean that the plant is constantly changing, and only the largest companies can afford to contract out for model maintenance or hire a specialized CAD expert to keep the model in-step with these changes. If the model is not current, it is of little value and degrades further. Finally, a sheet is placed over the one specialized-model viewing terminal, and that’s that.

There are real, practical benefits to 3D models beyond design-build. Several large oil and gas companies are investing in pilots that have very high priority and visibility %%MDASSML%% all the way into the boardroom. The benefits of the 3D model outside of design-build are too clear and numerous to ignore.

So why is the plant stuck with 2D today? The current generation of tools and applications are too complicated and costly for widespread adoption. Furthermore, even if they were easy to use, they are optimized for plant design tasks and lack the functions most needed and relevant for other stakeholders across the plant’s lifecycle.

The plant model is useful to all of the roles identified above, but only if it provides the right amount of information in the right context.

For example, much of the detailed piping and isometric information contained in the engineering model is not relevant to the plant operator. And the instrument tech needs a clear view of the local area of the plant he is working on and not necessarily the entire plant.

For most people, a fairly general physical representation is sufficient, especially if detailed role-relevant information can be accessed by simply clicking on the digital representation of the corresponding pipe, piece of equipment or instrument. The key here is providing different views for different roles and ensuring all information is relevant.

Is your model current?

Model access and review is only 20% of the battle. The real challenge is keeping the model up to date so that every stakeholder can get the information he or she needs, when needed for his or her job. There are only two ways to encourage updates: 1) Top-down mandate, and 2) Bottom-up demand.

Several of our customers have experience attempting to mandate model updates with little or no success. A bottom-up approach seems much more likely to succeed. The idea is that when each stakeholder has seen the value of 3D for his or her particular job, that demand will move model updates from “nice-to-have” to “must-have.”

The first step is getting simple-to-use viewing software and relevant models into the hands of the people in the plant %%MDASSML%% from there, imaginations are engaged and benefits realized.

The good news is that several technologies are emerging to help with the task of keeping your digital 3D model current. Often called as-built modeling, these technologies use laser scanning and image processing to provide skeletons of the plant for import into modeling or review applications.

Ultimately these technologies may get us to the point where the instrument or maintenance tech can simply “accept change” to approve a model update that reflects recently completed work. Until then, there will be some manipulation required to rebuild the changed sections of the plant, but even today this requires dramatically less training and effort than building from a blank screen.

Laser scanning is providing some genuine advances in as-built modeling. Laser-scanning systems generate a “point cloud” of data that can be used to generate accurate as-built models. Each point in a point cloud is defined by a very precise angle and distance %%MDASSML%% resolutions of 1/8 of an inch are now common. If the location of the scanner is known with some precision, then these points can be effectively reconciled with the model to jumpstart as-built modeling.

One could imagine a workflow where a field tech replaces or reroutes a pipe during the workday, and a laser scan of the area is completed that night. Then a PC could churn away on the data, and the next morning the tech is given an updated 3D model of their installation.

Another emerging concept in as-built modeling is using digital photographs to recreate the 3D environment. Photo stitching is the process of combining several digital photos to form one synthesized image. Image modeling is the follow-on process of taking these synthesized images and creating a digital 3D model. The idea is very similar to laser scanning but, rather than taking one detailed scan, several pictures are taken from different angles.

Photo stitching and image modeling are just now taking hold in the architecture and commercial building realms, but they promise to be a very valuable and simple-to-use tool for as-built plant modeling. Imagine being able to take 20 photographs of a reworked area, and then have your computer churn overnight to create alternatives for review the next morning.

For example, oil and gas refiner Chevron wants to create a highly interactive 3D environment to enhance the operational performance of its refineries through virtual analysis, training, and collaboration. This virtual environment will incorporate intelligent 3D models of refineries, built and linked to information sources such as asset reliability, computerized maintenance management, and electronic document management systems, among others. These intelligent models can be constructed from laser scans of the actual assets exactly as they exist in the field.

"Innovations such as this can enable enhancements in organizational capability, work processes, and technology to achieve safety, reliability, and performance goals in any manufacturing organization," said Kevyn Renner, senior technology consultant for Chevron’s Global Manufacturing business unit. "Manufacturers can stimulate new thought processes through collaborative 3D environments. And enhanced situational awareness through new data and information visualization techniques is core to working smarter."

Coming soon to a plant near you

We are about to witness a major change in plant maintenance. Field techs will collaborate in real-time with the control room via 3D plant models, teams of expert troubleshooters will be “deployed” through their PCs to a remote plant to identify and fix problems, maintenance leads will walk the virtual plant and interrogate valve signatures to determine which valves to replace during the next turnaround, safety teams will meet in a virtual plant on the other side of the world to perform safety walkthroughs. Several technologies are emerging that will make this possible in your plant in the next two to five years.


Free Navisworks trial available:

For a limited time, Plant Engineering leaders can receive a free download of the Navisworks 3D modeling tool and get to test drive what a 3D plant model looks and feels like. The plant model download is available at http://www.autodesk.com/navisworks-plant and the Navisworks download is available at www.autodesk.com/navisworks-freedom-plant .




Author Information
Robert Shear is a senior industry manager at Autodesk.

Invensys virtual reality system makes training interactive, safer

First there was Wii Games. Then there was Wii Fit. Now Invensys Process Systems has introduced a video-game style training system that not only allows the worker to train in a virtual plant environment, but allows that worker to interact with other workers in other parts of the same virtual plant as well.

The Invensys Virtual Reality Process technology , a next-generation 3D interactive HMI system, allows control workers and field workers to train in their own areas at the same time on the same system. Invensys officials who showed off the system on Feb. 25 said it allows for a new training model while making sure workers can train safely.

“We can do more than training; there’s a tremendous human factor involved,” said Tobias Scheele, IPS vice president of advanced applications. “There’s a lot of teamwork involved in these jobs. We wanted to be able to train them in a collaborative environment. It is a comprehensive training solution linking the control room operator and the field operator using the same knowledge.

“We can optimize the skills from the training environment to the operations environment and we can cross-check procedures,” Scheele added.

For some operators, the idea of virtual reality and game-based controls are nothing different than playing Madden 2009 on their PlayStation or Metal Gear Solid on their Nintendo 64. For others, gaming platforms and virtual reality are virtually new concepts. Getting trainees comfortable with the virtual environment was an important factor in the testing of the system.

“One of the key elements was looking at how the operator interacted with the sophisticated controls, and many didn’t feel comfortable right away,” said Maurizio Rovaglio, director, IPS global consulting. “This for us is the key part. The feedback we’ve received is really positive.”

IPS expects the new system to revolutionize how engineers and operator trainees see and interact with the plant and the processes they control. The technology has potential to train operators more quickly and thoroughly, and improve plant safety.

“What we’re seeing (in the prototype environment) is extremely promising,” said Scheele. “A passive 3D training environment, which is available today, can train a person, but you don’t have any idea of the timing of events.”

When it becomes commercially available later in 2009, IPS expects Immersive Virtual Reality Process to deliver a wide range of client benefits: help improve plant safety and security, ensure environmental and regulatory accountability and increase production and efficiency. Energy, chemical, oil and gas and other process industries will be able to apply the technology to meet the knowledge-management, training and retention challenges they encounter in the face of an aging and dwindling industry workforce.

The new environment has been designed for a wide range of scenarios including process design, maintenance engineering and plant safety, but Scheele said test users are already discovering new benefits. “The solution continues to be tested in a variety of installations, and we are beginning to realize its full potential and value-add possibilities,” he said.

Free download

Autodesk has provided a sample plant model to Plant Engineering for free download. To view the model, you will need to download the .nwd file to your computer and then download a free copy of Autodesk Navisworks Freedom. Then double-click the plant_model.nwd file icon and off you go. In the toolbar on the top, you will see icons for walking, flying, rotating and panning around the model. Go ahead and have fun with it; get an idea of what’s to come.

This offer is valid only in the United States and Canada. For countries outside the United States and Canada, contact your local Autodesk Authorized Reseller. This product is subject to the terms and conditions of the end-user license agreement that accompanies this software.

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