A new dimension for the plant floor

3D modeling offers a deeper vision of plant operations

By Robert Shear, Autodesk March 23, 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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.


Robert Shear is a senior industry manager at Autodesk.