Front-End Digital Twins Will Play a Major Role in Improving Project Outcomes

Front-End Digital Twins Will Play a Major Role in Improving Project Outcomes

July 01, 2021

The concept of a digital twin for an operating asset has been discussed at length, and more and more are being developed and used to drive towards operational excellence. Results of utilizing a digital twin include increased throughput, higher product quality and a reduction in unplanned downtime.

However, the development of digital twins for Front-End Engineering Design (FEED) has been less widely discussed. Why is this important? It’s important because the decisions made during FEED essentially lock in many of the factors that determine how the asset will perform over its lifetime. Additionally, Ed Merrow, CEO of Independent Project Analysis (IPA) believes that many of the difficult and expensive problems that arise during construction can be traced back to incomplete or poorly executed FEED.

So, we have this incredibly important part of the project lifecycle that can benefit greatly from better engineering and cost insights early in the process. We also know that our ability to influence the project outcomes decreases with time and the cost of making any changes increases with time. Therefore, the ability to model and visualize concepts, outcomes and costs would be highly valuable.

Enter The “Front-End Digital Twin”

At AspenTech’s bi-annual OPTIMIZE 2021 conference in May, Don Victory and Alex Farwell from ExxonMobil presented a session concerning an ongoing initiative at the company to enhance decision-making during FEED through better access to cross-discipline engineering and costing data. They can now see the elements of the plant they are costing and understand the tradeoff implications of different conceptual approaches. The company can also see the cost and risk “hot spots” on projects as well as identify potential constructability issues that may require extra attention.

ExxonMobil uses components of AspenTech’s Concurrent FEED solution in this initiative, including the process simulator, Aspen HYSYS®, plant layout tool, Aspen OptiPlant 3D Layout™ and project estimating tool, Aspen Capital Cost Estimator™.

In the next evolutionary step of the initiative, ExxonMobil is moving to what they refer to as a “Front-End Digital Twin.” The company’s objective for the digital twin is to leverage it for early insights on design performance, construction execution and cost implications. They intend to use it for quickly evaluating different design concepts, understanding tradeoffs between stick vs. modular construction and a better understanding of costs, including better insight into previously less transparent factors such as indirect costs. Ultimately, the vision is to be able to consider many options for a plant simultaneously evaluating factors such as effectiveness, cost, safety and construction, in parallel, to quickly get to the most optimal design concept. In fact, they’ve already shrunk concept development time from 30 weeks down to one month.

It’s not just cutting-edge owners that are driving the industry towards better, faster and more efficient ways of approaching plant design and concept selection. Almost every EPC we’ve met with in the past 18 months, even pre-COVID, was knee-deep in their own digitalization initiatives, often with the same goals as ExxonMobil—to consider more options faster to get the best result for their customer without compromising safety. They are generally approaching it through consolidation of engineering applications, connecting data and workflows and enabling re-use of engineering and cost data across functions, offices and extended teams, thereby facilitating the creation of digital twins of plant concepts. As this idea ‘shifts left’ from operations into design, everyone benefits.

Hear Why FEED is so Important

For more on these topics, check out the latest installment in the Podcast Series, The Main Column, where I speak with Hydrocarbon Processing editor-in-chief and associate publisher, Lee Nichols. The focus of our discussion this time is the critical role of FEED in a capital project’s success and why FEED matters. We also discuss the concept of Concurrent FEED technology as an enabler of smarter decision-making, sustainability impacts and more.


To learn more about recent V12.1 enhancements like Aspen OptiPlant 3D Layout, visit our what's new page. 

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