Construction on the double

9 June 2021

Systems engineering is at the heart of the modular construction that will be applied to SMRs, says Andrew Robb and in future a digital twin will keep it current.

Image: Assystem is pairing its digital and systems engineering expertise to bring a version of model-based systems engineering to the SMR programme


SYSTEMS ENGINEERING IS NOT A new approach. It is widely adopted in the mass-production practices of the aerospace and automotive industries, where it is used to model the complex real-world problems of modular vehicle construction. Now the UK nuclear industry is utilising the methodology as part of its Small Modular Reactor (SMR) programme.

The UKSMR Consortium is working with partners and the UK government to secure a commitment for a fleet of factory built 440MWe nuclear power stations, to be operational within a decade.

The consortium members are Assystem, Atkins, BAM Nuttall, Jacobs, Laing O’Rourke, National Nuclear Laboratory, Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, Rolls-Royce and TWI. The current phase of the programme has been jointly funded by all consortium members and UK Research and Innovation.

The planned fleet of up to 16 reactors will use modular technology designed for factory fabrication, easier transportation and on-site assembly.

The modular design is central to the power station, not only for the reactor components but for the construction of the entire plant. The approach aims to reduce costs by reducing on-site build time.

Joining the Consortium in 2019, Assystem brought its expertise in systems engineering to the programme’s turbine island, cooling water island and balance of plant projects. It is in these areas that the rigours and methodology of systems engineering can break down the complexities of the project and make a much quicker outcome more likely.

Andrew Robb is principal engineer and lead for the Assystem Systems Engineering team currently undertaking the concept design of the UK SMR. He says, “Systems engineering manages data and breaks down the complexities of the project, or product, the purpose of which is to reduce the risk of what you are trying to deliver. When risk is reduced, the likelihood of a successful outcome is increased.”

Eventually, a ‘Digital Twin’ will be created that will present all systems in a digital form, with all associated data linked to that element. Paramount to future SMR production, a Digital Twin makes available all the data and records that accompany a product makes it possible to interrogate any part of the design in the form of a 3D model. Should a design change be required, having that information attached to a 3D CAD model allows for greater understanding of the original rationale behind design choices.

Assystem is pairing its digital and systems engineering expertise to bring a version of model-based systems engineering (MBSE) to the SMR programme. This systems engineering methodology, focuses on creating and exploiting domain models as the primary means of information exchange between engineers. This in turn improves the economics of series production, shortens construction times and streamlines project-related communications.

In this way, designs for the next power station will have a traceable and logically structured data set that matches the visible product and lives with it throughout its full life cycle. This is a huge advantage in a very competitive market.

The project moves into a new phase in May 2021. The aim is to deploy first-of-a-kind UK SMRs in the UK in the early 2030s.

Author details: Andrew Robb is Principal engineer and lead for the Assystem Systems Engineering team

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