One of the most significant outcomes of rapidly increasing
computing power has been in three-dimensional (3D)
visualization; oil discovery makes extensive use of it, for
example. To a professional responsible for the safe and
efficient operation of an oil and gas facility, todays
immersive 3D computer games might seem like only a form of
engaging relaxation. However, the world is changing. The
visualization technologies pioneered for the games industry
will play important roles in the lifecycles of tomorrows
Technology involving 3D
visualization has long been essential to the work of the
engineering designer, but lush visual rendering has
historically been sacrificed for more immediately productive
uses of available processing power, such as responsiveness and
sophisticated clash detection. However, to overlook the
potential of realistic 3D representation is to miss an
opportunity to increase design productivity and quality.
Recent research has shown that only a limited set of visual
cues is necessary to create a convincing representation of
reality. These cues can be incorporated into design solutions,
providing designers with a highly intuitive visualization that
does not have an adverse impact on system performance.
Interactive controls enable a user to adjust three rendering
elements: edge definition, highlighting and shadowing. The
result is surprising: As the settings are adjusted, 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. As a designer moves an object, the subtle cues of
shadows and highlights 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 to route a
pipe. Aggregate this across the many 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 clashesthose
between collision spaces around objectscan be avoided
almost unconsciously, as shadows indicate proximity between the
objects (Fig. 1).
1. A new level of intuitive interaction
with the visually
realistic design model makes the avoidance of
easier, saving valuable design time.
New design has improved with advances in 3D modeling technology, but can the same
approach help with brownfield projects? Here, the challenge has
always been in the limitations of available surveying methods.
However, rapid advances in 3D laser scanning systems have not
only overcome this, but have also unlocked a new level of
capability in upgrading and revamping older facilities.
Among recent advances, 3D scanning captures far more detail
at greater accuracy than any other method. Todays
scanners generate accurate, photorealistic 3D representations
of an in-service facility, and they can do so quickly and
without disruption to normal operations (Fig.
2). Additionally, they are becoming increasingly
affordable, compact and easy to use.
Fig. 2. Todays laser
scanners can generate accurate,
photorealistic 3D representations of an
Software advances have brought ways to exploit the value of
the rich data generated. Initially, relatively sparse
point-cloud 3D representations of the as-operating
plant could be referenced within a design system, enabling new
design to be aligned accurately with existing construction. This offered
considerable advantages for revamp projects, as new design could be
created and fabricated in the confidence that it would fit
correctly the first time, during onsite installation.
New design has been taken further in the latest software
releases. These can combine both design models and laser-scan
models in the same 3D environment (Fig. 3).
The improved design visualization described above is matched by
high-definition laser-scan data, so that the designer can work
intuitively with both types of information. Now, for the first
time, the real and the virtual worlds can be integrated in a
3. New software releases can combine design
and laser-scan models in the same 3D
This integration brings important
benefits. One is the ability to efficiently reverse-engineer
existing plant construction. Software now enables, for example,
a cylindrical array of 3D scan data points to be recognized as
representing 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 piping and
instrumentation diagram (P&ID) and selected from the
shortlist, whereupon the software creates a native, intelligent
pipe object accurately coaligned with its scan representation.
Current capabilities cover pipes, nozzles and steel beams,
increasing productivity on some of the most repetitive aspects
of reverse engineering.
The lean revolution
The most far-reaching benefit of integrating as-designed and
as-built elements lies in the enabling of lean
construction methodologies. Lean has long been a
discussion topic in the plant industries, but until now they
have lacked the key to unlock it. By exploiting the ease and
affordability of laser scanning at every stage in the
fabrication and construction sequence, and by integrating the
data with the as-designed model, the feedback loop between
design, fabrication and construction can be closed.
In one-off capital projects, if a costly item is made
incorrectly, the program 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 program. For example, consider a project that
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 is it discovered that some mounting
positions are incorrect. Crisis management ensues, with
inevitable cost and schedule overruns.
It is, of course, possible to survey the foundation as soon
as the concrete is adequately cured for walking. An accurate,
photorealistic 3D scan can be immediately sent 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 action might,
for example, involve rerouting pipes or access structures, or
authorizing a design modification to the affected plant modules
while they are still in fabrication.
Plant operators have long regarded 3D as a tool exclusive to
designers. However, the industry is now rapidly coming to
recognize the considerable value of 3D visualization when
applied to plant operations. With realistic, immersive
visualization of complex engineering assets, one can learn by
doing in a safe environment, just as in a flight simulator.
Staff training and procedure planning are obvious
applications for this technology. People learn most effectively
by doing, and they understand most easily by seeing.
Three-dimensional visualization can be used by new recruits for
facility familiarization, in preparation for visits to remote
facilities or for updating skills
and procedures following plant modifications (Fig.
4). It can cover training in operations or safety
procedures, such as testing the most complex
what-if emergency-response scenarios or
collaborative planning between multi-site teams.
4. 3D visualization can be used for
in preparation for visits to remote facilities or for
skills and procedures.
These examples are obvious applications of 3D technology. However, there are even
more powerful ways to use 3D. State-of-the-art information
management technologies enable 3D datawhether a CAD
model, a laser-scan representation or bothto be
integrated and cross-referenced with every other type of
engineering or operational data. This enables 3D views to be
combined with other information. For example, if a leaking
valve is reported, an engineer can quickly locate it in the 3D
view, and then view or navigate to its related information,
such as its location on the P&ID, its full specification,
maintenance history, spares
availability, etc. (Fig. 5).
5. State-of-the-art information management
enable 3D data to be integrated and
with engineering or operational data.
Maintenance management is made
easier with applications that show the physical locations of
current and planned work orders on a 3D representation of the
facility. This is a powerful tool for avoiding potential
clashes between apparently unrelated tasks.
The ability to apply color-coding to objects in the 3D model
view can also be exploited for purposes such as risk-based
inspection (RBI) planning. By color-coding the various lines
according to, for example, fluid carried or operating
temperature, it becomes possible to do a virtual walk-down to
trace the route of a particular line, checking its proximity to
adjacent objects. This process can be performed in locations
that would be inaccessible at the physical plant.
3D from start to finish
To summarize, 3D is entering a new era. Simplified
representations of design objects are being replaced with
realistic renderings that are intuitive and easy to manipulate.
Also, 3D has moved out of the design office to bring its power
to every aspect of asset lifecycle management.
Combining more powerful design functionalities with the
ability to accurately capture the as-built asset and associate
both types of information with every other type is transforming
the way plants are created, operated and maintained. The
digital 3D counterparts of tomorrows plants will be
essential to their efficient design, construction and operation.
Additionally, it is now practicable to bring
yesterdays plants into the digital world of 3D models and
integrated information, to enable their continuing safe and
efficient operation, upgrade and lifecycle management.
Simon Bennett is a senior product
business manager for AVEVA. With a background in civil
engineering, he has over 10 years of experience as a
software product manager, having worked for a number of
commercial off-the-shelf and enterprise software
companies. Mr. Bennett joined AVEVA in 2008, where his
product-management experience allowed him to play an
important role in organizing the AVEVA NET family of
products. More recently, he was responsible for
launching AVEVAs new plant design product, AVEVA
Everything3D, and is currently driving AVEVAs
Future of Plant Design marketing