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Use 3D visualization to improve refinery engineering and design

07.01.2013  |  Bennett, S.,  AVEVA Solutions Ltd., Cambridge, UK

Keywords: [3D modeling] [refinery] [maintenance]

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, today’s 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 tomorrow’s capital assets.

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 clashes—those between collision spaces around objects—can be avoided almost unconsciously, as shadows indicate proximity between the objects (Fig. 1).

  Fig. 1. A new level of intuitive interaction with the visually  
  realistic design model makes the avoidance of clashes
  easier, saving valuable design time.

Upgrading assets

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. Today’s 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. Today’s laser scanners can generate accurate,
  photorealistic 3D representations of an in-service facility.

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 common environment.

  Fig. 3. New software releases can combine design models
  and laser-scan models in the same 3D environment.

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.

Into operations

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.

  Fig. 4. 3D visualization can be used for facility familiarization,
  in preparation for visits to remote facilities or for updating
  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 data—whether a CAD model, a laser-scan representation or both—to 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).

  Fig. 5. State-of-the-art information management technologies
  enable 3D data to be integrated and cross-referenced
  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 tomorrow’s plants will be essential to their efficient design, construction and operation.

Additionally, it is now practicable to bring yesterday’s plants into the digital world of 3D models and integrated information, to enable their continuing safe and efficient operation, upgrade and lifecycle management. HP

The author
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 AVEVA’s new plant design product, AVEVA Everything3D, and is currently driving AVEVA’s “Future of Plant Design” marketing initiative. 

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jared hanscom

A well written explanation of the position that 3D visualization technology is assuming in the management of industrial assets.

Kevyn Renner

Completed 3D Virtual World and Visualization projects in operations at a major O&G in both Downstream and Upstream The application of 3D as presented here shows enormous promise for cost reduction, safety improvement, operations training etc. Nice article!!

Dr. Rasmy Azoole

Very promissing!!


This is perfect and excellent.

Arturo Aranda

Estoy muy interesado en esta herramienta de visualizacion de proyectos de modo a comparar con planos y calculos hechos sobre el mismo proyecto y sobre los modelos matematicos de funcionamiento. El porcentaje de visualizacion del proyecto debe aumentarse de modo a reemplazar los indices matematicos por indices visuales de presicion. Querria mayor informacion al respecto

Frank Meyer

I would like to contact Simon Bennett to find out what firms are using 3D for 5 furture plants we are developing.

Kenneth Harper

In the old days, we used to build plastic 3-D models of the new plant. I always found them useful, but the practice stop because of cost. It is nice that the computers are bringing back 3-D models.


it's perfect for training

Simone Robinson

We have been using 3D animations for a number of years to demonstrate to our clients (Shell, Saudi Aramco, BP etc) how our research and development of advanced cleaning techniques will help clean their heat transfer equipment faster, safer and more effectively. Link to one of our animations here for those who are interested. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=am20FxuTo1M

rashid hasan

a good peice of knowledge

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