Virtually ready for anything

Safety and efficiency of all types of process plant could be dramatically improved by a new software package which combines dynamic plant simulation with 3D modelling and virtual reality. Virtual Plant will have applications from plant design through to training and hazard and emergency planning. It is the result of a collaboration between Imperial College’s […]

Safety and efficiency of all types of process plant could be dramatically improved by a new software package which combines dynamic plant simulation with 3D modelling and virtual reality.

Virtual Plant will have applications from plant design through to training and hazard and emergency planning. It is the result of a collaboration between Imperial College’s Centre for Process Systems Engineering, its spin-off company Process Systems Enterprise, and Cadcentre and Silicon Graphics.

The package links four established products: Process Systems Enterprise’s gPROMS dynamic simulation package; and Cadcentre’s PDMS, Review Reality and Hyperplant, which offer 3D geometric modelling, virtual reality visualisation and internet access.

The numerical output from gPROMS is communicated to PDMS, which represents features such as temperature changes, levels in tanks, and flow in pipes through colour changes on a 3D model.

Communication links between the two packages are web-based, allowing the system to be used via the internet or an intranet.

Professor Sandro Macchietto, chairman and managing director of Process Systems, says the web interface offers ‘all kinds of concurrent engineering possibilities at the design stage. You can see the effect of changing geometry or valve size, or connecting pipes differently’.

The result, he says, will be quicker, cheaper and better-quality plants because the designs will have been extensively tested before being built.

The application is likely to be particularly important to hazard and emergency planning studies, where 10 or so experts meet to brainstorm ways in which a plant might go wrong, and possible results.

‘It’s people-intensive, boring and expensive you need all the experts in one place so it’s only done for very critical applications,’ says Macchietto. Virtual Plant makes it possible to run as many simulations as desired and the experts can watch from their own sites over an intranet.

‘It could make this kind of study more commonplace, and increase plant safety,’ says Macchietto. ‘And if there’s an accident while the expert is on holiday, he or she could log in to see what’s happening.’

A further application is improved decision support for the plant operator, who could run a virtual reality simulation on any change before doing it on the real plant.

Virtual Plant was made possible by the way each package describes elements of a plant’s process. PDMS can model a plant schematically as a two dimensional process and instrumentation (P&I) diagram, as well as a 3D scale model. But it is also a full engineering model with a database listing each component, what it is made from and its characteristics.

Similarly, gPROMS models individual components, such as a pump, as objects. The maths behind each object may be complex, but it is straightforward to set up one-to-one mapping between the object in gPROMS and its PDMS equivalent.

Virtual reality viewing

Review Reality creates a visualisation of the plant which can be viewed on anything from a PC to a full virtual reality environment. Hyper Plant ‘publishes’ this in a web/internet-accessible format.

David Wheeldon, Cadcentre’s head of product direction, says PSE and Cadcentre had been thinking along similar lines about linking a simulation and geometric modelling package. They were introduced to each other by Silicon Graphics.

Getting the two packages to work together entailed setting up communication links and adding extra geometric features to allow PDMS to display aspects such as liquid levels. Silicon Graphics helped write the communications links. ‘Synchronisation between the packages had all three parties scratching their heads,’ says Wheeldon.

A proof of concept study was carried out by creating a model of Imperial College’s batch pilot plant. The result was unveiled at last year’s Achema show at Frankfurt and the software was one of five finalists in the manufacturing category of the 1998 Computerworld Smithsonian awards in the US.

The product is ‘quite close’ to hitting the market, says Macchietto. The next stage, for which partners are being sought, will be to carry out trials with a full-scale industrial plant. The main aim will be to refine the links between the packages. ‘We’re discussing a number of application projects with potential industry partners,’ says Macchietto.