IT helps to integrate

28 September 2001

Management of plant information involves the creation, processing and assessment of large amounts of plant data. The nuclear industry has invested heavily in IT to manage this data, including for design and construction of reprocessing plants.

Deregulation of power markets has led to the opening up of national markets – increasing the pressure on the nuclear industry both in terms of generating profit and continuing to meet stringent safety standards. The industry must look for new ways to improve the smooth running of plant throughout the entire engineering lifecycle, from the engineer/procure/construct (EPC) phase to operation and decommissioning.

These challenges are similar in many ways to those faced by the non-nuclear process industry. The conventional industry spearheaded by oil & gas engineering contractors has begun to make strategic use of IT particularly by beneficial integration of data between applications.

When combined with the issues that set the nuclear industry apart from the conventional process industry – plant size, length of plant life and tight controls on radiation and management of waste – the nuclear industry is a prime candidate for the integrated use of IT at all stages of the plant lifecycle.

Information silos

At present, all data generated by the different applications involved in a nuclear plant’s lifecycle is stored in what can be thought of as separate ‘silos’ of information which have never before been involved in the consistent exchange or sharing of data. These silos contain engineering, health & safety, and business information. These information domains are traditionally treated as belonging to completely independent departments of the organisation. However the integration capability of the Internet offers the potential to break down barriers between not only data stored in silos, but also between information domains.

A major challenge facing nuclear industry managers is the effective hand-over and linking of information created at the EPC phase with information required for the operational/maintenance (O/M) phase. Currently data collected in the EPC phase is held in a separate information domain to that from the O/M phase.

The major application in the engineering information domain is 3D CAD (computer aided design), which is used to co-ordinate spatial layout among the various engineering design disciplines. Other applications include IT systems for electrical cable management, engineering datasheet management, weld record management, Piping & Instrumentation Diagram (P&ID) schematics, structural steelwork detailing, fabrication and construction planning, project management as well as systems to manage master catalogues of engineering components. Some simple data exchange links between these applications have occurred but with little concerted business-driven integration. There is huge scope here for beneficial improvement.

The business information domain is dominated by the ERP suite of applications. These applications usually come from the same vendor and are integrated around common financial data. These include financial cost management, routine plant maintenance and human resource management. However ERP tends not to be so good for managing procurement of new engineering plant where separate applications unconnected to ERP are implemented.

The key application in the health & safety information domain is the document management system, which is often also used to support engineering information. However not all health & safety information tends to be stored under this umbrella. There are discrete isolated silos for the likes of hazardous operation studies, radiation mapping data, radiation monitoring, maintenance planning, and kinematic robotic simulation.

The sheer size of a nuclear plant and the very high volumes of data generated make computer aids particularly useful. Companies such as BNFL and EdF saw the potential that comprehensive enterprise-scale 3D CAD systems could offer in the engineering information domain in the 1980s and went ahead in implementing them.

CAD in action

One specific example is the BNFL Thorp reprocessing plant in Sellafield. The total installed cost (TIC) of Thorp was £1.6 billion. It consisted of 1700 vessels interconnected by in excess of 400km of piping, much of which is very expensive stainless steel. Over 60,000 piping isometrics for material takeoff and fabrication were extracted automatically from the 3D CAD system. This was large enough to require over 30% of the total UK national engineering contracting industry to be involved in the process.

3D CAD was also implemented at Thorp for integration purposes, to co-ordinate layout design for various different engineering design disciplines – mechanical, process, electrical, instrument and structural steel – around the central common 3-dimensional co-ordinate space of the plant. Thorp was so large that it was subdivided into four major sub-projects with a separate engineering contractor taking responsibility for each. By mandating the same 3D CAD system BNFL was able to consolidate and integrate all four, albeit very large, sub-projects into the master project.

  The team that built BNFL Thorp reused layout design data for 3D visualisation to ensure consistency at further engineering lifecycle stages of the plant. Construction planning and supervision/scheduling as well as in-cell erection – Thorp is made up from interconnected concrete cells for radiation shielding – was carried out to quality assured 3D colour shaded pictures, as opposed to conventional 2D engineering drawings.

The benefits gained by the use of 3D CAD at Thorp were substantial. Greater accuracy in piping material takeoff reduced site problems by an order of magnitude. Over-ordering of expensive stainless steel piping was effectively eliminated making site overage non-existent. It is estimated that around £5 million was saved by using 3D for piping design and detailing. In more general terms the loose integration of 3D plant modelling data with adjacent engineering IT silos, including the P&ID, welding records and cabling management, gave 25% design productivity improvement.

This success is a marked contrast to the situation that has arisen in the UK, where new plants have been designed and brought on stream without the benefits of such comprehensive computer aids. A number, including the plant at Dungeness, ran over in terms of both budget and timescale. This suggests that the projects were too large to manage without comprehensive enterprise-scale computer aids.

Learning lessons from projects like Thorp, some organisations in the nuclear industry are beginning to define 3D CAD models retrospectively for plant built in the past. Older projects, such as on the four Paks VVER-440s that have operated in Hungary since 1982, had hugely complex and voluminous plant information associated with them. In fact when the documentation was delivered to the Paks site, it arrived in 30,000 boxes in three large lorries. By building a 3D model from that data, its operators have reduced ongoing operational and maintenance costs.

There is still a major gap between the EPC phase of the plant and operation of that asset. This discontinuity is not only business but also informational. EdF, the French nuclear operator, is beginning to reuse 3D CAD design information to help bridge this gap and plan and schedule major plant maintenance shutdowns. However due to organisational separation of EPC and operational divisions BNFL was not in a position to take advantage of engineering domain information to support Thorp operations and planned maintenance of its equipment. That having been said there does now exist both the technical possibility and business opportunity to share engineering domain EPC information with business domain operational ERP data.

The need for sharing

The use of integrated systems using 3D CAD models is just the tip of the iceberg. The prospect of genuinely sharing data in an integrated environment based on Internet standards offers the prospect of very much higher value – not least by supporting fundamental improvements in processes for safety, plant engineering and business.

However a necessary precondition for valuable integration is the fundamental improvement of data quality. For example, during commissioning of new plant the data from the variety of engineering applications needs to be reconciled and made consistent to help manage the plant during its long operational phase. This reconciliation of data, sometimes called data cleansing and consolidation, is not easy to be automated and thus is a human-intensive service.

But this consolidation is essential to convert the data into valuable integrated business information essential for improved decision-making during the running of the plant. For example valves performing identical duties are often ordered from different manufacturers and sometimes different valve models from the same manufacturer. Operational efficiency requires that this replication be removed. Handover data consolidation services carried out on conventional offshore oil & gas facilities have established that such engineering parts duplication can be reduced by an order of magnitude. There is no reason to believe that potential benefits to nuclear plant will be any less.

Integrating silos

An integrated system architecture to support the interconnection of application silos and organisational information domains and the corresponding business process reconfiguration – that provides support across the complete engineering lifecycle for the very large volumes of complex plant data involved – has three layers. The top layer is a web-based portal (see lower Figure on right) that allows object-based access to data stored in a variety of applications. The bottom layer stores the variety of applications.

The ‘smart’ layer is the second one, also known as ‘middleware’. This needs to have a number of capabilities. It needs to have a common data model to accommodate all applications supported. This implies a common engineering object catalogue, which transcends individual applications and supports all three information domains for the complete plant lifecycle. It also needs to flexibly support various workflow models by spanning safety, engineering and business processes.

A number of separate applications in this informational regime co-operate under the integrated tutelage of the portal. These applications include P&ID schematics, 3D plant layout modelling (for all engineering disciplines), material management (to include procurement, electronic links to suppliers and construction site management), document management (to include QA and regulatory documents), engineering datasheet management (for all engineering disciplines), and consolidated plant commissioning.

An example of this architecture at work within the operational phase of the plant could be the identification of a faulty feedwater pump in the P&ID. At this stage the pump becomes the focus within the portal and the system is used to help search for it. With a single click of the mouse the operator can visualise the pump’s location within the plant in 3D CAD, and with another click of the mouse the equipment datasheet can be viewed (from the engineering datasheet management application).

A further click checks the purchasing status of this type of pump against the procurement plan. This allows the operator to see whether a replacement pump has been delivered to the site and whether the associated control and isolating valves together with required interconnecting piping is available on site to allow immediate installation.

There are a number of beneficial opportunities from using this architecture. Firstly the consolidated engineering data can be used directly to populate ERP business/financial systems. Secondly, it can be used to populate plant maintenance systems like Maximo and SAP PM (plant maintenance). Thirdly the data can be used for maintenance planning. In effect, the business gap that exists between EPC phase and operations can now be bridged courtesy of integration technology and the Internet.

At present the nuclear power industry is surviving well and coping with challenges to which the conventional process industry have had more opportunity to adapt. However all aspects of the operation of a nuclear plant – business, health & safety, and engineering – would benefit from an increase in information integration.

It is important to note that up to 5% of the total installed cost of a plant could be saved by the integration of information silos. In plants worth in excess of £100 million, that is a sizeable saving that cannot continue to be ignored.

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