Collaboration extends Its reach

The step change occurring in engineering technology is being driven by the latest capabilities of design and operating software to exchange these data.

By Nick Basta

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However, collaboration certainly can fail to meet its potential. At the Plant2004 meeting, Jack DeBrunner, manager of capital projects at Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, cautioned that IT systems set up for broad-based collaboration can stumble when dealing with real-world production environments. He described a recent effort to implement a company-wide document-management system, which would standardize how important records were stored and updated for its global base of plants. "What we overlooked was that many of our plants had developed shortcut approaches to this task that worked well for them, but differed from location to location," he says. However, the efficiency expected in the enterprise-wide system only occurs with a standardized approach. "The key will be to have such information systems equipped with a user interface that can be customized to local 'flavors,' while still having the necessary underlying structure," he says.

Nick Basta is editor at large for Chemical Processing  magazine. E-mail him at

Vendors such as Intergraph use XML schemas to integrate collaborative up- and downstream work processes of its own, as well as third-party software.The ultra-efficient transfer of data and information is equally valuable in instances where collaboration is occurring between multiple organizations, such as joint ventures, or shared construction projects. However, easy data transfer can be hard, especially as different IT systems interact.Perhaps following the paradigm of how IT systems are being developed these days, the organizational structure at engineering-design firms also is becoming more "distributed" and data-centric. While the companies are not all evolving the same way, several common themes appear. The days when certain offices of a large design firm handled all of the work for one or another type of plant are passing. Now, more and more firms are relying on small "centers of excellence" located in strategic locations (sometimes, but not often, at the home office). Larger offices handle generalized projects or markets -- such as petrochemicals out of a Houston location. Other offices, sometimes including ones operated by partners or jointly owned, tackle the grunt work of detailed engineering design. Many of these are located in the newly industrializing regions of Asia or Eastern Europe. Onsite construction management can involve any or all of the other offices. Three-dimensional models, such as this rendering of reformer-furnace process piping, play an important role in sharing work worldwide.The computer-aided design (CAD) tools used by E&Cs and, increasingly, by plant owners exemplify the full range of collaborative technology available in the chemical industry. During the 1985-95 period, software vendors shifted from 2D tools, which allowed for simple schematic drawings and not much else, to 3D tools. These enable designers to plot plant components in their locations and to perform such functions as interference checking -- to make sure, for example, that two pipes don't occupy the same space. The 3D tools also allow for highly realistic "walk-throughs" of the designed plant, allowing plant operators to look for problems such as poor accessibility of equipment that needs routine maintenance (Figure 2). E&C companies are getting used to a more distributed working environment, and will shift more and more work geographically and by function.
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