September 2019


Digital Refinery: Change project execution with virtual and augmented reality

It is an exciting time to be a contractor in the energy industry.

It is an exciting time to be a contractor in the energy industry. The industry is making significant investments in new solutions that are driving improvements in safety, productivity, schedules and costs.

To optimize project delivery, the authors’ parent company established its Business Transformation and Innovation group to promote an innovative culture through collaboration across the company and to deliver improvements across the entire lifecycle of a project. The more than 53,000 employees develop a range of innovations that drive the engineering and construction industry forward.

For the last 4 yr, the company’s Business Transformation and Innovation group has hosted Innovation Unwrapped, an annual event where diverse teams gather to solve client challenges. Innovative augmented and virtual reality (VR) solutions from recent Innovation Unwrapped events, as well as solutions generated by employees, are being implemented in project execution.

Virtual and augmented reality are now widely used in the video gaming, designing and architecture industries. These technologies provide a lifelike experience for users; these same immersive experiences are also yielding benefits for the engineering and construction industry. VR can transform plant design models and 3D site scans into virtual walkthrough environments. Project teams and operating companies can experience facilities before ever breaking ground and without leaving their desks.

It is not enough to simply innovate; new ideas and technologies must be implemented. However, the pace of implementation is largely dependent upon the integration that is required. The minimum viable product for solutions that are the first of their kind (e.g., VR) and require little integration can be relatively easy to develop and implement.

One example of an easily implementable solution is using 360° cameras producing images to be used in 360° virtual tours of jobsites, units, buildings or other facilities. The tours can then be used for safety training, project overviews, presentations, team alignment or project progress reports. Selecting predetermined camera locations on the map allows an individual to virtually transport to that location and use the controls to navigate 360° around the image. Referenced videos, aerial photos, engineering documents and infographics are embedded into the scenes to create an interactive user experience. Tours are stored on a secured website and can be accessed via computer, mobile device or even viewed through a VR headset.  Visualization of projects, tasks and jobsites increases the user’s understanding of the challenges he or she is working to solve.

For solutions (e.g., augmented reality) that may require real-time data to be overlaid with reality, the minimum workable product often requires more time and effort to develop a truly viable and meaningful representation of the full solution.

Three examples of how virtual and augmented reality products are improving projects are explored here.

Model reviews and operability

VR creates a virtual walkthrough environment for model reviews. Engineers, designers, construction and operations personnel can physically reach for valves and read meters in the real-scale virtual environment, helping confirm that the design will meet the requirements of the end user.

VR is used on projects to review issues that are raised during model reviews. The technology helps visualize what a space will really look like with imported vendor models and similar lighting conditions. Through VR, operations teams test out tasks that would be performed during plant maintenance and operations. The teams review access and egress points to ensure that the plant can be safely navigated.

Constructability is also improved through VR during model reviews. Construction teams use VR programs to determine if cranes can reach specific areas, if a platform is needed to access equipment, or if hoists or monorails can be used to install components.

Safety training

Studies show that people learn best through experience. By creating safety experiences in the security of a controlled, virtual environment, retention of training materials and lessons is increased (FIG. 1). Virtual and augmented reality offer a sense of scale, height and realism to create memorable experiences.

In one application, 360° cameras are used to support safety programs around motorized heavy equipment. Through the cameras, users have a 360° view of the interior of an operator’s cabin. Areas around the equipment are also captured from the viewpoint of the operator to gain a better understanding of heavy equipment. In addition to supporting operator training, the tours are shown during site safety orientations. This orientation educates and increases the awareness of craft personnel that will be working in the same areas as the heavy equipment.

VR can also support safety training programs. Simulations include working at height and heavy-motorized equipment trainings, two operations that pose the greatest risk of serious injury.

The training begins with an explanation of the controls. Trainees are required to wear personal protective equipment, including gloves, a hard hat and safety glasses.

  • Working at height. The training module simulates regular operations by having the trainee clip his or her safety harness into a tie point at height. The simulation continues by explaining the hazards of working at height (FIG. 2) and emphasizes how craft workers should move any items that pose a hazard. It also provides an explanation of the impacts of falling objects. The module finishes with a test for the trainee to spot the hazards on a virtual reality construction site.
  • Motorized heavy equipment. This training module takes place at ground level around several pieces of heavy equipment. The trainee can safely view large equipment in detail in this virtual environment, and learns spotter hand motions, including forward, backward, stop and emergency stop. The trainee is then transported inside the equipment to understand the blind spots on the equipment. The trainee also gains an understanding of how these blind spots change as loads are lifted and additional fields of view are blocked. The trainee then becomes the spotter and is asked to safely guide a piece of equipment. The simulation completes with a debriefing of what was learned in the module.

Craft training

Simulators can be built for tasks that are repetitive or high risk to train the craft personnel prior to conducting the work. For high-risk tasks, a minimum completion time is required before the real work can begin. This approach allows personnel to memorize the tasks and optimize performance.

At craft training centers, many students have not previously been exposed to careers in construction. One center has incorporated the use of the safety VR training simulators into their training curriculum. The students can run through both training modules with follow-up discussions from their trainers. The center also uses augmented reality to support training through 360° cameras, and trainers are introducing students to construction sites via the 360° virtual tours. In this interactive and immersive experience, students can visit a variety of construction sites, from chemical complexes and infrastructure sites to mining projects. This experience quickly orients students to what they can anticipate at a jobsite.

These virtual and augmented reality solutions continue to mature and are being implemented on projects around the world. As the technology develops, the cost of equipment and supporting software becomes more affordable, and as data integration improves, new applications will continue to be discovered and implemented.

Craft training, model reviews and safety training are just three areas where virtual and augmented reality have enhanced operations. With continued deployment of these technologies, the industry can continue to see benefits, such as increased alignment, enhanced understanding of site conditions and layout, and improved constructability. The result is the potential for significant safety, cost, schedule and quality improvements, benefitting both contractors and operators. HP

The Authors

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