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Virtual Training, Real Savings: Providing Instruction at Less Cost

Companies in the global energy industry are under intense pressure from all directions. Growth in power demand must always be met and compliance with increasingly stringent health, safety and environmental regulations is mandatory. New facilities must be brought online quickly, and infrastructure must be upgraded and modernized. And throughout, a retiring workforce with the potential loss of know-how and experience must be replaced — all with minimal service interruptions.

All the while, companies with significant assets in the field need new solutions to keep a lid on operations and maintenance costs. According to a report by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, nearly U.S.$16 billion is lost annually in the energy industry overall due to interoperability challenges. The renewable energy segment in particular faces significant challenges. 

Offshore production couples new technologies and other processing plants to some of the world's largest facilities, operating around the clock at peak capacity under some of the harshest conditions. Many installation, upgrade, refurbishment and maintenance projects involve hundreds of workers who must be thoroughly trained - especially in safety-related operations such as handling fires and other emergency incidents. Scheduling requires precise choreography to ensure each step occurs on time and in proper sequence.

Many companies typically have mandatory training for their workers and subcontractors a few weeks a year. Challenges to meet training requirements are compounded at offshore generation sites that are accessible only by helicopter or boat as this drives up transportation costs for personnel and equipment.

On-site training offshore is hugely expensive and highly disruptive to routine work. Conducting training exercises on-site using actual equipment presents a higher risk of damage to valuable equipment and the safety of the crew, especially subcontractors and new personnel who are unfamiliar with the site. On the other hand, off-site mock-ups are expensive to construct and often do not realistically replicate real-world scenarios.

The industry needs capabilities that allow owners and operators to execute programs safely, on time and on budget, ensuring a continuing supply for an energy-hungry world and a fair margin for those who meet the demand.

Critical Issues

A growing number of companies in the renewable energy industry are addressing these challenges through the use of 3D virtual planning, simulation and visualization technologies. Such systems allow people to plan and schedule operational procedures, train workers and meet health and safety requirements by interacting with a computer-simulated 3D environment, including cranes, plant assets and workers, to determine the best process to minimize costly project delays and mitigate project execution risk.

By studying procedures in this virtual world, engineers, planners, safety experts and workers can identify problems, explore options and determine the best remedy without disrupting actual plant operations. With lifelike 3D models, simulations and visualizations, planners can test project plans virtually, and workers can see precisely what is required before they attempt it on the job. In this manner, optimal procedures and scheduling of operations can be worked out before projects are started and workers can be safely trained off-site.

Typically, digital models are created from a combination of drawings, CAD geometry, 3D master models and laser scans of the facilities. Such digital models are highly detailed and typically more accurate than physical mock-ups which, in most cases, are no more than rough approximations. Digital models can also incorporate representations of equipment, for example cranes, and can simulate their interactions, such as the resistive force workers encounter in turning a valve. All this contributes to an environment that both looks and behaves realistically.

Goodbye, Mockups

These simulations can include either lifelike models of humans or 3D manikins for a wide range of virtual ergonomics or human-factors studies. The manikins are more sophisticated than the commonly known human avatars used in virtual reality (VR) or gaming systems as they are built using anthropometric specifications for male and female, such as name, gender, weight and height. Again unlike VR gaming, manikins also possess fully articulated hand, spine, shoulder and neck models that accurately reproduce natural movement such as reaching, grasping, walking and lifting. This allows the choreography of multiple workers operating in tight spaces because biomechanics tools can be used to examine worker posture, comfort, safety, strength, fatigue and efficiency in performing tasks.

Virtual ergonomics simulations can be validated against requirements for compliance with regulatory authorities such as the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In this manner, operations and maintenance procedures can be thoroughly analyzed to ensure they are safe for workers, protect the public from potential hazards and lower the risks of equipment damage. Human factor studies are also useful in evaluating equipment layouts and accessibility, plant workflow, lifting requirements and more.

Raising Productivity, Lowering Costs

Planning for operations and maintenance procedures in the renewable energy sector encompasses a wide range of tasks. Major pieces of equipment that weigh perhaps several tons must be installed, replaced, inspected and repaired. Operational tasks such as those of cranes have to be performed. Complex sequences of actions must be completed quickly and flawlessly. The traditional ways of planning rely on the experience of the workers and subcontractors to execute the required maintenance tasks. But supporting 2D drawings and historical information can be inaccurate and outdated, which may lead to miscommunication between the various project teams during execution, resulting in expensive delays to the project, unsafe working conditions and costly project rework. 3D simulation-based systems for planning scheduled maintenance or new operational procedures provide an effective way for engineers to develop precise and detailed plans to execute work “right the first time” by studying various scenarios and performing what-if evaluations.

For example, simulations can be performed to determine optimal paths for removing or installing equipment, minimizing interferences and identifying hazardous areas. Software developed specifically for such studies provides visual alert notices during the simulation and detailed clash reports listing all interferences. Engineers use this information to study and modify procedures until a suitable operational plan is determined. Likewise the kinematic motion of cranes, robotics or other equipment can be accurately simulated to check that the devices can indeed perform required operations. In addition, a company's valuable know-how and intellectual property can then be captured and retained in the 3D environment for future project planning.


Maximizing Workflow

Properly executing planned operational and maintenance procedures is the critical function of scheduling. That is, the development of timelines, asset utilization resource allocations and personnel requirements. Scheduling takes this into account as a basis for construction and process planning, operations and maintenance tasks, and personnel assignments. Effective scheduling requires output on individual task durations, equipment and resource requirements.

Existing schedule and resource information that is created in standard applications such as Primavera or MS Project may be imported into a project's 3D work breakdown structure, which can then combine information on timelines, activities and resources. Linking the schedule to the 3D structure and process simulation model creates a representation that is time-based, or 4D.

This representation enables users to more easily visualize and understand operations and timelines. In this way, scenarios can be rearranged to more readily spot conflicts, find an optimal critical path and develop an optimized schedule taking all interrelated operations and processes into account. This approach is far better than conventional static, paper-based scheduling schemes.

In advanced systems, scheduling software is often coupled with process planning simulations in an integrated solution that optimizes schedules for day-to-day plant operations as well as periodic maintenance tasks. By iterating with process planning in evaluating various what-if scenarios, the scheduling solution analyses alternative sequences and arrives at an optimized master schedule. This is invaluable to project managers and others in determining budgets, manpower requirements, critical timelines and operating efficiencies.

Promoting Safety, Reducing Mistakes

After optimal maintenance scenarios and related work schedules are developed, companies can save and capitalize on this captured knowledge. They can replay the simulations as needed, easily making changes to adapt to different conditions while using the information throughout the entire lifecycle of the equipment.

Reusing the operations and maintenance planning simulations for virtual training purposes is of particular value. Planning and training can be done separately, but tightly integrating these two functions within a single-platform is the most efficient approach for creating training scenarios and ensuring they reflect current operations and maintenance planning procedures. VR guides workers safely and interactively, indicating when they are wrong and showing them the correct sequences of operations.

VR training systems create a lifelike, immersive environment that adds another dynamic dimension to 3D simulations. VR technologies enable users to interact with computer-simulated equipment and surroundings in lifelike realism. Most of these applications are used in worker training, where some of the most advanced systems use 360-degree wrap-around theatres with photorealistic imagery viewed with stereoscopic glasses. Multiple speakers generate high-fidelity sound effects to familiarize workers with the harsh and sometimes subtle sounds found on the actual jobsite.

Head-mounted goggles track head and eye movements, allowing the system to recognize where users are focusing their attention in the overall scene. In this way, workers can be trained off-site using VR without disrupting normal work routines or exposing them to the hazards of performing an unfamiliar task in a real-life setting. Workers can gain familiarization with the plant or pipeline layout, equipment operation, walking paths and evacuation routes and memorize the location of safety devices.

By indicating which tasks were successfully performed and which mistakes were made, employees can be “coached” on individual skills while the company is able to create regulatory documentation.


Companies in the renewable energy industry are deploying simulation technology to ensure workers are well prepared with the skills and knowledge necessary to work safely in unforgiving environments. These organizations are aiming to increase productivity and lowering costs by planning operations and maintenance procedures in a better way, maximizing workflow and utilization of resources with detailed and coordinated scheduling, and making plants safer and more efficient with comprehensive simulation-based training. The business value of these applications is potentially immense, with the costs of reduced non-productive time measured in millions of euros annually. A saving like that arises by avoiding the loss of this money through operating inefficiencies in this complex and challenging sector of the energy industry.

Harry Daglas is vice president of energy & shipbuilding BT, PLM - Americas at Dassault Systèmes.


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