March/April 2010

Engineering automation? ... Just mash the button

By Ken Valentine

What does automation mean to today's modern engineering contractors? From the perspective of the automation engineering discipline, this means designing efficient systems with modern instrumentation, the most current process control systems with all the bells and whistles, IEC61511-compliant safety instrumented systems, cutting-edge analyzers and sample systems, and the most up-to-date communication system. Though the cost of a control system including equipment, engineering, and design is less than 3% of the total installed cost of most major projects, the opportunities for improved return on investment are greatest within the discipline in the form of advanced process control, energy savings, enterprise solutions, asset management, plant maintenance, medium and high fidelity process modeling, and operator training. This is how an optimized facility is achieved; but how do the contractor's engineering groups use automation to optimize their productivity?

Engineering automation in this context is defined as the software tools and processes used during the design phases of a project by all engineering disciplines, and it plays a very large factor in the design of a facility. Modern Engineering Contractors use some form of engineering automation in their design, from 3-dimensional (3-D) modeling to automatic generation of drawings using a data-centric environment.

When engineering contractors first started using personal computers tied together within networks, most automation was limited to creating small macros within a single electronically generated drawing. The computer replaced the drafting table, and the effort it took to generate a CAD drawing was about the same as producing a drawing with a T-square and lead holder. As engineers became more experienced with databases, they started to automate the generation of deliverables. As the computers and networks became more powerful, the automation software evolved, and data was put on servers able to handle larger amounts of data. Work teams became virtual, and projects were in operation worldwide.

The design process starts with the overall blueprint for the facility-the piping and instrumentation diagram, or P&ID. Today's "intelligent" P&ID has common data imbedded in the symbology that is initiated by the process engineer and used by all engineering disciplines to develop the facility. After the P&IDs are issued for design, the 3-D model and work in the engineering system design software begins.

Prior to computers, plastic models were developed to lay out facilities. This ensured all pieces of the facility would intersect accurately and the facility would fit onto the allowable real estate. However, even the best modelers could only achieve a design accuracy of a few inches. Today's facility constructability accuracy is dependent more on the quality of the field craftsmen, such as welders and pipefitters, than the dimensional accuracy of the model which is a fraction of an inch. Using today's 3-D model results in fewer engineering and field hours, fewer paper documents, and less waste for lower cost and "greener" design.

The 3-D model is a multi-discipline effort. The instrumentation and electrical disciplines model the lighting, raceway and conduit, junction boxes, electrical equipment, in-line instruments, local panels, remote buildings, and stand-mounted instruments. The documentation that goes to the fabricators and construction contractor are automatically generated by the software and delivered electronically. The 3-D model is then used by construction for planning, reporting, and progressing.

While the 3-D work is going on, data is being loaded into the instrumentation design platform, which will eventually produce datasheets, wiring interconnection reports, instrument indexes, cable schedules, and other deliverables. Data is imported into the control and shutdown systems for configuration. Much of the engineering documentation is viewable through the control system or plant-wide enterprise solution. 

After construction is complete, owners use data generated during the engineering phase for their maintenance, asset management, and enterprise solutions.

So what is the ultimate goal that engineering contractors and clients want from engineering automation systems? The "Holy Grail" of engineering automation has always been to have an integrated software package that creates an "instant design"-otherwise known as "just mash the button," as a senior ISA member used to say. Even with the application of data-centric systems, is it feasible for engineers to develop a complete design that includes all the engineering deliverables that are needed? Owners would have to accept standardized designs based on common industry practices and specifications. In reality, few owners are willing to accept designs based on this type of standardized criteria. We are still a long way from our goal of achieving this level of engineering automation with the technology available today, but we are getting there with each step.


Ken Valentine is Fluor's Global Excellence Leader for Control Systems and a registered chemical engineer at the Sugar Land, Tex., office.