Recently, I had the pleasure of taking one of my daughters half-way across the country to begin college on the East Coast. The trip gave me time to consider the topic for this blog. The advances in how a project navigates from conception through construction can be compared to the changes in our country’s infrastructure and transportation that have made it much easier today to drive across the United States.
The Evolution of Technology and Transportation
Our transportation started out as paths, then trails, and then two-lane roads as a means of connecting local people to nearby towns—whether by foot, horse or car. As technology evolved, transportation by automobile and paved roads drastically reduced the time of travel to nearby towns. By continuing from town to town, one could make their way across the country—but with countless stop lights, reduced speed limit areas and too few lanes to handle a high volume of cars. As I zipped across the country on a high-speed interstate, I was grateful to be able to make the 1,000-mile journey in a day and a half with seamless transfer from one major town to the next.
Digitalization seems to be at the place now that our country was at when sections of Interstate highway were complete yet some routes still relied on state roads. When digitalization is fully realized, every aspect of project execution will accelerate and all projects—both new plants and existing system expansions—can be scoped, cost estimates made, detailed designs completed, and construction deliverables produced more quickly and fully consistent with project objectives.
Digitalization Already Having Strong EPC Impact — with More to Come
From an Engineer Procure Construct (EPC) company perspective, there are many areas where digitalization is already making a significant impact. Three-dimensional (3D) modeling is a mainstay of all projects, enabling stakeholders to visualize the work as the design matures. Allowing multiple disciplines to design within one 3D model provides tremendous benefits to a project progressing more quickly and efficiently. Simultaneously, utilizing laser scan data is another tremendous benefit. Engineering software and various digital tools are used in virtually every discipline’s work product whether process simulation, stress analysis, hydraulic calculation, or structural steel modeling and cost estimation, to name a few.
Zachry Engineering Corporation is technology neutral but for many years we have utilized the AspenTech software packages as they can be applied over a wide spectrum of applications and industries. For new projects, not having the right software license may be a barrier to participating in the project at all.
Digitalization software packages are demonstrating the potential to link outputs to better transfer data for utilization in downstream design efforts. Yet there is still a need to anticipate and resolve roadblocks in order to realize the digitalization potential from an EPC company’s perspective. Examples of situations frequently encountered with EPC projects can be a good starting point for understanding areas where digitalization tools can evolve to gain greater efficiencies.
Three key areas are highlighted below — let’s call them detours
The first detour is that most projects today involve scope integration with an existing plant. Plant documentation and level of detail is typical for the time it was built and often not upgraded or maintained with reliable data. The cost to upgrade existing documentation is not entertained until the project has advanced to the final funding phase. By this phase, significant project scope has already been started using the existing documentation as is. Further complicating this issue, Value Engineering and other cost-cutting objectives are typically being employed to improve project economics so documentation upgrades are often not funded.
The second detour is that most projects follow a “gated” execution process. This is where a project advances from conceptual thoughts through detailed design in a series of contracts with increasing levels of both detail and engineering added at each stage to gain sufficient confidence in the cost estimate prior to final procurement and construction decisions being made. It’s not unusual for an owner to change engineering firms at these stage gate transitions. Incompatibility of different licensed commercial simulation models and other digitalization tools developed during these preliminary engineering phases causes inefficiency in time and money as this effort must now be recreated in the new firms’ licensed software packages.
The third detour is that software packages remain largely written for their primary purpose, whether it is process simulations, piping and instrumentation diagram drafting, 3D models, civil/structural design, document management systems, or computerized maintenance and management systems. Within the same software company’s suite of products, we are seeing the beginning of functionality for passing data from one software package to another, however, configuration of that capability and interpretation of design data still requires significant manual intervention.
These detours are all certainly solvable. Like our peer EPC firms, Zachry looks forward to the continued progress and streamlining of project execution in the years ahead to accelerate the pace of engineering new projects while improving efficiency and quality.
To learn more about digitalization for EPCs, view the on demand webinar, How Digital Transformation at Engineering Firms Will Be a Big Win for Plant Owners.