Computer-age coordination of age-old processes

March 13, 2013

Have you seen some of the things they do with industrial-plant software models today? As always, it’s the meshing of user roles that makes an integrated system sing.

Have you seen some of the things they do with industrial-plant software models today? As always, it’s the meshing of user roles that makes an integrated system sing.

The first material resources planning (MRP) systems were meant for “discrete manufacturing” done in factories where “things” were made, like cars or computers. Likewise, computer-aided design (CAD) was first applied to develop consumer products.

Granted, software and process control have been joined at the hip since almost ever there was a software. And it wasn’t long before planning and scheduling algorithms and heuristic rules were commercially available embedded in systems more appropriate for process-production scenarios.

Still, as the MRP system evolved into the enterprise or “ERP” system, the process industries had a bit of a “not-invented-here” attitude when it came to these large software systems that integrated production planning and scheduling, finance and distribution. The oil and gas industry still retains that attitude today.

Another process industry characteristic underplayed by most enterprise systems is the centrality of maintenance, or as it’s often referred to today, “enterprise asset management,” as a constraint on or an enabler of on-going operations.

This is only to say: there doesn’t seem to be much cause for further complaint.

Over the last decade, the modeling in software of the most important functions of the sectors and sub-sectors of the process industries progressed at a torrid pace, including in enterprise systems specific to process industries, asset-management centric enterprise systems, and 3D design systems meant to track and manage an entire asset from development through construction, operation and maintenance.

With all, the central idea it could be said is that there is tremendous efficiency in a single source of truth.

At the recent ARC World Industry Forum, Processing met with William H. Muldoon, IV, an executive vice president, and Simon Bennett, a senior product business manager, with AVEVA, which provides 3D design and modeling solutions for the process and power industries.

The visual impact of 3D design and its incorporation into virtual environments makes the promise of these systems particularly exciting. But really what’s most important is how the technology can be applied to age-old problems like, “what did I actually buy and what did I actually get?”

AVEVA Plant integrates engineering, schematics and 3D design data into one managed plant model.

Just the sheer mass of materials involved in the EPC construction team’s handover to the owner-operators operations team begs for digitalization. The addition of an automation vendor as ancillary EPC further complicates things. But the handover is sticky too because the two teams may have somewhat different visions for the plant. Their incentives, compensation wise, may not even be in alignment.

Using AVEVA PDMS, the logical model of a plan becomes a full 3D design layout, where suitability and fit can be tested in a virtual world. Designers from different disciplines work concurrently in a specialist 3D environment. Catalogues of predefined parametric components and objects are used and then automatically checked using configurable rules. Changes are highlighted for all to see.

Another source of dissonance is that what’s actually constructed at the plant may not match up with the as-designed. The Aveva execs say today’s more portable laser scanning systems allow on-site modeling of plant environments. In addition, mobility technology applied to design/build collaboration and cloud computing will be increasingly important.

Further, the execs say the recent introduction of AVEVA Everything3D as the core design platform for AVEVA Plant can bring EPCs and owner-operators into this new age. For example, models of unlimited size, based on laser scan data from the construction site, can be integrated into the plant model by means of tie-in points. Users can display and interact with the laser data and accurately measure discrepancies between as-designed and as-built and position and “clash-check” new design against existing plant. 

“If the goal is lean construction, then there has to be a feedback loop where the design and detail phases are combined, and this follows through all the way to the site, where feedback continues by means of these new capabilities,” concludes Bennett.

Granted, in many cases the most advanced software systems have been developed with the world’s largest corporations in mind, and for the mid-sized enterprise of less than $1 billion in annual revenues the installed base of software applications is not near anywhere near today’s bleeding edge. Someday, though, all these capabilities will be ubiquitous. It’s a brave new world and interesting to see how it all unfolds.

Although even today, my impression is that planning and scheduling software applied to heavy process industry production is almost invariably highly customized.