Seeing is believing

For most people, the term virtual reality conjures up a vision of the amusement arcade, where you can briefly escape from reality by coughing up a few pounds, donning a cumbersome headset and entering a computer-generated world that has as much in common with virtual reality as police boxes do with time travel.

Thankfully, that view of virtual reality has nothing in common with the virtual reality practiced at Cadcentre in Cambridge. Here, system software developers have designed some useful software tools that will allow process plant designers, predominantly in the petrochemical, power generation and pharmaceutical industries to develop, view and share, plant data in three dimensions before a single brick has been laid or a single pump has been positioned.

Physical models that replicate the plant in miniature are expensive, and difficult or impossible to modify. Worse yet, they are often received three to six months into the project, by which time design changes may have already made them obsolete. Cadcentre’s software helps to overcome these difficulties by allowing virtual 3D models of the plant to be built.

The software is a three part affair. First, there is the 3D plant design software called PDMS (for Plant Design Management System). This allows the user to build up a detailed 3D model of the plant from components such as pumps, tanks and pipes that are contained in a detailed 3D library. Then there is the visualisation software, Review Reality, that enables project teams to visualise the 3D database in real time in order to review 3D models of the plant. The last piece, Hyperplant, helps users to review the progress of a project and access design data across the Internet.

Viewing the 3D models comes courtesy of a Silicon Graphics computer that is used to create a trio of high resolution images. The three images are merged by a Panomaker edge blending system and displayed by three AmPro projectors onto a 5m wide 120 wrap around screen. Rather than wear the familiar headset, all parties involved can view and comment upon the design while sitting in a small theatre.

All this is good news for designers of oil rigs and petrochemical plants. These cost billions of dollars, says Darrel Fanguy, a Visualisation Specialist at Cadcentre. Through the use of 3D visualisation, we can provide the ability to reduce the design and construction time. And that can save the customer millions of dollars.

Using the Review Reality software, it is possible to view a plant from many different angles using up to seven virtual cameras that allow a realistic impression of the plant to be obtained from a number of different positions. In process plant design, this may be vitally important to ensure that personnel can easily gain access to certain areas.

It’s also possible to view scenes under different lighting conditions. Subsea lighting conditions, for example, are markedly different from those above the sea, and to anticipate what a diver might view from under the water might prove critical in the effective installation of equipment. Better yet, developers can actually walk around the 3D model, ensuring that safety equipment is installed or located at the correct position, and that enough space has been left for the placement of system components such as tanks and valves.

Animation is another possibility. The operation of a crane can be modelled, for example, to ascertain whether it has the space to move a particular pump set from one position to another within a process plant. Should the user choose to do so, he can also view the scene in a true 3D perspective by simply donning a pair of glasses.

For its part, the Hyperplant system allows engineers to access and review the plant design information wherever they are located in the world. The Information is first extracted from the PDMS system and made available via a HyperPlant server. The server delivers information to standard Web browsers in a variety of formats drawings, P&IDs (Piping and Instrumentation Diagrams), engineering and design attribute lists and 3D models of plant components represented in VRML (virtual reality modelling language).

The Hyperplant software also integrates the browser with Review Reality, bringing the entire database to life, allowing engineers to view 2D drawings while walking through the 3D plant and to follow the processes within the P&IDs in the 3D world.

The size of the models developed using the software is not insignificant some of Cadcentre’s customers have developed models that run into the Gigabyte size range. Needless to say, the computational power involved is not inconsequential either. In the past, Cadcentre has used UNIX-based Silicon Graphics workstations to host their software. This past January, however, the company ported the software to NT-based Intel platforms enhanced with graphics cards. According to the company, the NT based system has certain advantages where customers need to run the Visualisation software alongside other Windows applications, such as spreadsheets.