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Advances in engineering and design technologies

3D technology is moving out of the design office to transform the entire 
asset lifecycle

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Article Summary
To a professional responsible for the safe and efficient operation of an oil and gas facility, today’s immersive 3D computer games might seem like only a form of engaging relaxation. But the 3D visualisation pioneered for the games industry is about to play increasingly important roles in the lifecycles of tomorrow’s plants.

Computer processing power can be considered as a sort of digital budget, which has to be apportioned by an application to achieve optimum overall performance. In engineering design, 3D visual rendering is less important than more immediately productive features such as responsive positioning of complex objects and sophisticated clash detection. But as processing power has increased, to overlook the potential of realistic 3D representation is to miss an opportunity to increase design productivity and quality.

Recent development at Aveva showed that, for design tasks, only limited visual cues are necessary to create a convincing representation of reality. By incorporating these into its latest design solution, Aveva Everything3D (E3), the company provides designers with intuitive visualisation without slowing system performance. Interactive controls enable a user to adjust three key rendering elements: edge definition, highlighting and shadowing. The effect is surprising; as one gradually increases the settings, simple geometric shapes quickly assume convincing solid forms and unambiguous positions in the virtual plant.

The result is a new level of intuitive interaction with the design model (see Figure 1). As a designer moves an object, the subtle cues of its highlights and the shadow it casts make its actual 3D location more obvious. The result is a small but valuable improvement in the time and effort required to position an object or route a pipe. Aggregate this across the hundreds of 
individual positioning operations performed every day during design development and the result is significant. Design productivity increases, saving time and effort through quicker, more accurate positioning and less repositioning. Soft clashes — those between collision spaces around objects — can be avoided almost unconsciously as shadows indicate proximity between adjacent objects.

Upgrading assets
Gains in design productivity for new projects are always welcome, but the same approach can also help with the far more numerous revamp and upgrade projects. Here, the bottleneck has always been in the limitations of available surveying methods. Rapid advances in 3D laser scanning systems, and the software that exploits the rich data they generate, have not only overcome this, they have unlocked a new level of capability in refurbishing older facilities.

First, 3D scanning captures far more detail at far greater accuracy and with less effort than any other method. Today’s scanners can not only generate accurate, photorealistic 3D representations of an in-service facility, they can do so quickly and (usually) without disruption to normal operations. Importantly, these new technologies to capture 3D information are safer than traditional measuring methods, requiring less work at height, and are more cost effective (see Figure 2).

Second, software advances have brought new ways in which to use 3D surveys. Early developments enabled the accurate but relatively sparse “point cloud” representations of the as-operating plant to be referenced within a 3D design system, enabling new design to be aligned accurately with existing construction. This substantially reduced the commercial risk in revamp projects, as new design could be created and fabricated in the confidence that it would fit right first time during on-site installation.

Rapid development has taken this further. The latest software releases enable both design models and laser scan data to be combined in the same 3D design environment. The improved design visualisation described above is matched by high-definition “real-world” laser scans, blurring the visual distinction between design objects and surveyed objects. The designer can work equally intuitively with both types of information. Now, for the first time, the real and the virtual worlds can be integrated in a common environment (see Figure 3).

This brings important benefits. One is the ability to efficiently reverse-engineer existing plant construction. Software can now recognise, for example, that a cylindrical array of 3D scan data points represents a pipe run. By comparing its diameter with available pipes in the system catalogue, it then offers the designer a shortlist of candidate pipe specifications. The correct specification is determined from the P&ID and selected from the shortlist, whereupon the software creates a native, intelligent pipe object accurately co-aligned with its scan representation. Current capabilities cover pipes, nozzles and steel beams, increasing productivity on some of the most repetitive aspects of reverse engineering.

Lean revolution
However, the most far-reaching benefit of integrating the as-
designed and the as-built lies in the enabling of lean construction methodologies. Casting an envious eye on the many benefits brought by the lean manufacturing revolution, the plant industries have long sought the key to unlock lean construction. That key has now been created. By exploiting the ease and affordability of laser scanning at every stage in the fabrication and construction sequence, and integrating the data with the as-designed model, the feedback loop can be closed between design, fabrication and construction.

In one-off capital projects, if a costly or long-lead item is made incorrectly, the programme impact can be considerable. But if the deviation can be identified immediately and in detail, an informed decision can be made to mitigate its impact and protect the programme. For example, suppose a project requires a concrete base with a number of mounting points for key modules. The concrete is poured, but only when the modules are being installed several weeks later is it discovered that some mounting positions are incorrect. Inevitably, recovery incurs cost and schedule overruns.
Now it is possible to survey the foundation as soon as the concrete is cured enough to walk on. An accurate, photo-realistic 3D scan can be immediately sent back to the design office, loaded into the design system and quickly compared with the design model. Immediate, informed action can be taken to recover the situation and protect the project schedule. This might, for example, involve the re-routing of pipes or access structures, or authorising a design modification to the affected plant modules while still in fabrication.
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