Harry Daglas, Contributor
April 08, 2013 | 0 Comments
LONDON -- 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.
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.
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.
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