Advanced generation assets
Advanced generation assets, such as GE’s FlexEfficiency 50, and the recently launched FlexEffiiciency 60, are driving the development of more sophisticated plant design software
Credit: GE

In today’s challenging power sector, plant builders must be able to deliver advanced projects of the highest quality, more quickly and at lower costs than ever before. To achieve this, a new generation of design software is required. Simon Bennett presents Aveva’s vision of the future of plant design.

The global power generation industry is at a turning point. With major environmental concerns over fossil fuels, nuclear undergoing a crisis of confidence, renewable energy only a partial solution, ageing plants approaching their end of life, and overall a relentlessly increasing demand for energy, it is clear that the industry’s future will be very different from its past.

The investment needed to meet demand growth is estimated to be around $38 trillion by 2035, according to the International Energy Agency, so whatever the technologies employed the industry is going to have to deliver a lot of projects over the next couple of decades. The pressure is on to drive down cost, reduce schedule time, and to implement new global partnerships ever more effectively – all without any compromise in quality or control.

At the same time, engineering and design software tools have reached a plateau and are themselves about to undergo a fundamental transformation in their capabilities and in the ways we use them. This is partly because of technology advances and because the new generations of engineering professionals will have different expectations of what technology should do. But primarily it is because industry itself has moved on and needs software tools that can meet tomorrow’s challenges.

As a major provider of engineering, design and information management software to power industry we are already pioneering these new tools. Here is our vision of the future of plant design.

Fundamental requirements

Undoubtedly the best place to start is with what the customer needs. We, as many companies do, have close working relationships with our customers and put considerable effort into understanding and anticipating their needs. As a result, a number of essential characteristics can be identified that any successful next-generation technology suite must possess.

Plant design software may allow an engineer to perform a complex task efficiently, but deployment, configuration and maintenance of the software – especially across multiple partners or suppliers – is all too often a difficult process, absorbing considerable costly effort. Business does not need this unnecessary burden. The next generation of plant design software must therefore present minimal obstacles to its rapid deployment, on standard hardware, without compromising its performance or usability.

The more quickly a project can start the sooner it can be completed, so quick start-up offers valuable competitive advantage, provided it does not compromise quality or safety. If you combine rapid start-up with increased design quality assurance, the business benefits are considerable, both in project delivery, return on investment and lower lifecycle costs. Our next-generation plant design system, for example, will enable project teams to be up and running in days, and make more extensive use of previous design work. Design work can be co-ordinated by means of a global concurrent engineering system, integrating all project partners and providing authorised users with full visibility of the design at all times.

Where once there was a certain novelty value in a new application’s capabilities, users would tolerate quirky, difficult interfaces. With the maturing of the industry’s relationship with technology and the need to achieve ever higher productivity, this is no longer acceptable. Design software must be easy to use. Well-organised and intuitive user interfaces are essential, not only to help users in their daily tasks but also to reduce the need for extensive training or complex system administration. A well-designed user interface should effectively disappear – it should allow the user to simply get on with the task in hand in the most efficient and enjoyable way possible.

In 3D engineering design, the quality of rendering in the working view has generally not kept pace with developments in other areas, such as computer games. While a designer does not need lush, photo-realistic rendering, there is much to be gained by the careful application of visual cues such as edge definition, shadows and highlights on 3D objects to make their positioning more intuitive (see Figure 1).

More integration, more automation

One-off capital projects involve an iterative, multi-discipline and highly concurrent design process, so first-class project execution demands controlled sharing of all the different types of information created and used by the various project participants. This demands a new level of information integration, whereby an engineer can create and control necessary information of whatever type – whether a schematic diagram, a line list, a 3D model or a 3D laser survey – and have this made available to colleagues across the project.

Manual processes are inefficient and error prone, so as many as possible should either be made unnecessary in a next-generation solution, or extensively automated to save effort and eliminate errors. However, automation can bring with it a loss of flexibility, so it is essential to provide the means to configure automatic processes, such as drawing production, to meet the precise needs of the evolving enterprise or the individual project. Together, such increases in integration and automation can be expected to increase design efficiency by 10–20 per cent.

Accelerated design assurance

Design review and approval has long been a critical-path bottleneck in project execution. As projects become ever more complex and globally collaborative it is essential to remove this bottleneck. One opportunity for achieving this comes through the use of mobile devices, such as tablets, to bring the decisions to the decision makers, wherever they happen to be. The next-generation design tools will make 3D information available anytime, anywhere, in a controlled manner, to the relevant individuals for action, i.e. no longer will a key approval be delayed because the chief engineer is attending a conference on the other side of the world.

Designed-in quality and safety

Design quality assurance is essential, but often comes at the expense of laborious detailed checking by experienced staff. The next generation of plant design software must reduce this chore, while increasing the levels of built-in design quality. And it must recognise the demographic erosion of established skills and experience, and their replacement by a younger generation, who need to build up their experience but also bring new expectations of what design technology should do for them.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Subtle enhancements to 3D rendering in the working view improve ease of use and the ability to position objects quickly and accurately

These requirements can be achieved not only through increased data integration and usability, but also through greater embedded checking and validation capabilities. Together, these will speed the creation of ‘right-first-time’ standards-compliant design, keep safety at the heart of the design and foster the growth of skills and experience.

The ability to embed checks and validation throughout the various design processes will enable accelerated project delivery through reduced manual checking and faster review and approval.

Minimising construction rework

In our ‘future of plant design’, software is no longer just a productivity tool for designers; it affects business efficiency through every stage of a project, and even influences the lifecycle costs of the finished asset.

The biggest project costs and business risks are incurred in construction, so a next-generation solution must maximise efficiency in this critical phase of the project. It must enable the elimination of rework and materials inaccuracies through the eradication of design errors and information inconsistencies at the earliest possible stages. But it must also enable ‘agile manufacturing’ – the ability to allow designers to adapt designs to the constraints that exist on site during installation and construction.

For both new-build and refurbishment projects, it must also be possible to check the accuracy of each successive stage of construction. Because construction rework is costly, it is rarely desirable to correct errors in the as-built stages – by using 3D laser survey data to verify the accuracy of construction as it progresses, successive stages can be adjusted in design to ensure an accurate fit on site.

The next generation of plant design solution must support closer and more extensive collaboration between the design and construction teams.

A business imperative

For established businesses in power plant construction the future will be challenging enough, but we now see rapidly growing competition from emerging economies. Not only do such competitors enjoy lower labour costs, they launch themselves onto the world market by adopting best-in-class tools and business processes so as to deliver world-class projects from the outset. Together, these commercial pressures put a premium on efficiency and agility.

Recent industry surveys have shown that around 80 per cent of new contracts are placed on the basis of a contractor’s track record. But track records are reputations – hard to gain but easy to lose. Companies that enjoy strong records must continually evolve and improve so as to sustain them. And the coming technology revolution will have a profound impact on their ability to do so.

This changing power market is bringing new challenges in the creation and management of ever more complex generation assets. Plant builders must be able to deliver advanced projects of the highest quality, more quickly and at lower costs than ever before. To achieve this, they need plant design software that will enable them to increase project performance. Plant design tools are business-critical enablers for the power industry. Technology advances are about to fundamentally change the ways in which asset builders use these software tools, removing barriers and hindrances, increasing productivity and enabling new, more efficient business processes. The next generation of plant design software will:

  • Reduce costly rework in construction by allowing design teams to interact with laser scan data as part of their design process;
  • Avoid installation and alignment errors by allowing designers to check as-built fabrications against design;
  • Enable the rapid capture, control, sharing and exploitation of project information and expertise – across global teams, multiple disciplines and between projects;
  • Accelerate decision making, design and construction, by providing rapid access to critical information and visibility of the design at all times;
  • Enable quality, compliance and safety to be embedded in the design right from the outset; and
  • Accelerate project execution by shifting focus away from the tools themselves and onto the essential business processes that they enable.

To learn more about Aveva’s vision of the future of plant design, visit