February 2020

Special Focus: Digital Transformation

Managing dark data and visualizing your digital twin

Today’s tools are often specialized for a certain type of task; however, they often lack the connectivity that would enable the easy comparison and cross-reference of asset information. Engineering tools are well suited for design and build phases, but may be less suited for use in operations and maintenance.

Today’s tools are often specialized for a certain type of task; however, they often lack the connectivity that would enable the easy comparison and cross-reference of asset information. Engineering tools are well suited for design and build phases, but may be less suited for use in operations and maintenance. In most instances, the functional information in those tools is disconnected from 3D designs, even though the designs could provide an excellent context for operations training, maintenance task planning, troubleshooting and decision-making under abnormal conditions.

In turn, 3D designs for project planning lack access to engineering design or information and/or maintenance records, thus narrowing the user’s view. In fact, 3D models are rarely updated after plant changes, and are typically not reused for operator training. One of the reasons for the disconnect between simulations and asset information is the lack of support for keeping them in sync. The tools used are often demanding skills, license costs, computing and network resources—and these demands can fluctuate wildly. When a project is executed, the bottlenecks appear.

As most plants in areas with advanced economies are brownfield plants that were built decades ago, asset documentation is a real challenge. While there is a business case for up-to-date asset information, estimates show that the average percentage of assets with current asset information is most likely below 50% and rarely exceeds 70%, according to ARC Advisory Group. It is troublesome that most owner-operators are unable to identify their out-of-date information, let alone show a progression of improvement over time. When users are aware that some available data is incomplete, inaccurate or outdated, they understandably begin to question the validity of all accessible data. If only part of the story is told, it creates challenges and inefficiencies that can lead to the wrong decisions being made and, in some cases, major damage.

Technology trends

Cloud and virtualization technologies enable an easy and instantaneous on-demand availability of computational resources and services. While on-premise clouds would limit a company to its own infrastructure, hybrid private/public cloud solutions enable the on-demand extension of cloud-based resources. This flexibility enables responsive, collaborative engineering and asset management with its highly variable demand on resources. Cloud platforms can be configured for high availability and provide close to real-time updates of information upon entry by the user.

Security risks of cloud solutions are a concern; however, with appropriate measures, these risks can be managed to a level of acceptable residual risk. Cloud platforms (e.g., platforms as a service) and software as a service have introduced the concept of services—such as analytics—that users can apply to their data to study correlations or cause-and-effect relationships, thereby providing a significant improvement in productivity.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) provides the possibility to monitor plant or equipment performance remotely. This domain is advancing in great strides, with secure and standardized connectivity lowering the cost and effort of developing applications, and providing process and maintenance engineers with more opportunities for analytics.

The vision

Combining these technology trends with deep domain knowledge and the existing challenges previously discussed, a joint collaborationa has developed a vision for an open, cloud-based solution for engineering and operations. This cloud-based solutionb—accessed through a browser—will federate data sources, provide functionalities in the form of microservices, and facilitate the management of the digital twin of the asset throughout its lifecycle. The solution will use state-of-the-art cybersecurity, information segmentation related to user roles and role-based access, management of change, and data traceability and visualization.

The solution was built as a set of microservices, including collaborative process engineering and functional asset information management (e.g., 1D information, such as specifications and data sheets, and 2D schematics), and 3D design and physical asset modeling (e.g., physical layouts, positions and locations). It also contains information management from asset and project management perspectives, including maintenance history, reliability data and failure mode analyses, as well as analytics services and the capability to trace previous versions.

The user can use preexisting 3D plant models or projects authored in most available 3D design tools and “mix and match” those with models based on photogrammetry or 3D point clouds to create a “reality mesh.”

This cloud-based solution supports project engineering for modernization, maintenance and overhaul projects in existing and operating plants. Multiple disciplines can simultaneously work on projects, each with their role-based views of the data and with appropriate workflows for reconciliation and conflict resolution. Reconciling the data in scenarios involving turnarounds and maintenance during operations is on the roadmap. The portal supports electronic workflows for collaboration with engineering, construction and service providers, and allows reviews, redlining and markups, and full authoring.

Services can provide analytics on the available information to monitor asset information quality and completeness, or to compare plant performance changes related to asset characteristics or plant modifications.

Manage dark data and visualize your digital twin

The cloud-based solution facilitates the construction of the digital twin as a federation of data from many sources. These sources can include engineering databases, maintenance repositories, stored 3D models, 3D surveys and photogrammetric information.

Access to schedule and cost—and to other information accessible through enterprise resource planning (ERP), recipe databases, project and portfolio management systems, and laboratory information management systems, among others—is provided via connectors. This approach of distributed data management (where every data point is interconnected) avoids replication, while providing consistency and accessibility. The data is distributed through cloud services—as hybrid or on-premise instances—and utilizes the users’ local storage.

In addition to information accessible online, a category of inaccessible sources (such as PDF documents, drawings or paper documents) and electronic data in legacy systems can benefit a broader set of users, when made available. The portal includes intelligent services to help incorporate, analyze and connect data from these sources (e.g., “dark data”).

These functionalities can considerably reduce the effort of building the digital twin and increase the percentage of documented asset information. As a digital twin of the physical plant, asset information changes over time, and it can be important to compare the asset states at different points in time or to analyze their evolution. Therefore, this cloud-based solution also enables users to “travel” through the digital asset history. It helps users maintain process simulations throughout the asset lifecycle by providing the capability to associate a simulation with an asset information snapshot at every major plant modification.

This solution brings all asset information together, contextualizes it, validates it and visualizes it. It transforms raw data into a comprehensive digital twin. It provides one complete digital twin that is continuously updated; faithfully emulates its physical counterpart, both in behavior and informational context; and empowers users with the information needed for subsequent steps. This provides site managers, operators, engineers and/or operations managers with reliable and up-to-date information on plant operations.

Faster and better decisions at your fingertips

This new approach represents a key step toward process industries’ top priority in adopting new digital technologies—the digital twin enablement of their operating plant engineering without disruption to their existing physical or virtual environment.

Combining 1D, 2D and 3D in a single environment provides functional context to physical representations and vice versa. The more dark data that can be made visible, tagged, validated and linked to other available information, the more valuable and context-rich information will become. Access to operational, business and project, portfolio or product data management software will provide even more context.

Context is critical for understanding the meaning of information and for acting appropriately on it. The easier it is to update and to complement asset information, the higher the degree of documentation of the asset and the more accessible the information will be. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the solution will speed up decision-making, since context is at one’s fingertips—and to improve the quality of decision-making, since more accurate information is available. Making good and informed decisions can make the difference between a potential disaster and a smoothly operating plant. Consider all the major industrial accidents over the past 20 yr and how the lack of accurate contextual information may have played a part.

Furthermore, the cost of owning and maintaining IT infrastructure to host demanding tools is reduced. The load volatility is handled in a cost-effective manner and can adapt to the users’ needs without restrictions. With state-of-the-art security, cyber risks can be reduced to an acceptable level.

Operational and project-related information can be used side by side. All disciplines have direct access to information changed by colleagues in other disciplines, and the time to find information is reduced substantially. Collaboration between engineering, operations and maintenance is facilitated. Configured workflows enable compliant, quality-controlled processes, project and document generation. Overall, this leads to productivity improvements.

The time and effort to federate and complete asset information—especially for brownfield installations—will be significantly reduced, and this improvement in the quality of plant documentation will better help meet regulatory obligations. The traceability of information changes and data validations recorded over time will enrich the context and enable objective assessment of the quality of the data.

The cloud-based solution provides invaluable insights that will help the user discover possibilities, make informed decisions faster, and drive the profitability of plant operations in the long term. This solution is a portal through which the user can see past 2D and 3D visualizations to the information and connections behind them. Conversely, it also enables the user to see past pure data to understand how it comes together in a visual form—always from the right perspective, anytime, anywhere. HP


a Siemens and Bentley Systems’ strategic alliance
b Siemens and Bentley Systems’ PlantSight cloud-based system

The Authors

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