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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The idea of one group of engineers working with another -- either within or outside an organization -- is hardly new. Companies in the chemical industry have long collaborated with academic researchers, joint venture partners, suppliers, subcontractors and other allies. In recent years, however, the pace of collaboration has seen a step-change increase.

Part of the reason for this is simple necessity. Companies have pared support staff to the bone to ride out the recent industry recession. More firms also are partnering to share the increasing costs -- and risks -- of many lines of business. Fluctuating energy costs, for example, make joining together with an energy provider particularly attractive for energy-intensive processes. Another reason is business managers' belief that they can reduce support costs by contracting the work to outside organizations, otherwise known as "outsourcing."

On the engineering technology side, a similar step change is occurring. For years, technologists have bemoaned the overspecialization of engineering disciplines and the need for team efforts to handle production problems. Meanwhile, engineering software applications, originally built to address specific design or operational problems, have become multi-featured. Moreover, the need for passing data from, say, a process control system to a planning and scheduling program has grown. The step change occurring in engineering technology is being driven by the latest capabilities of design and operating software to exchange these data.

"There's no question that collaboration is one of the top 10 issues in engineering software," says Monica Schnitger, senior vice president for market-research firm Daratech, Cambridge, Mass. "At the same time, most observers agree that the technology is mostly there, but the work processes in engineering organizations are lacking."

At Daratech's Plant2004 conference, which was held in Houston in late January, keynote speaker K. C. Choi, chief information officer for the petroleum and chemical division of Bechtel, San Francisco, stressed the increasingly diverse environment in which the contractor operates. The Nanhai, China, petrochemical project, where engineering design is complete and construction has begun, is a good example. The massive, $4.4 billion project involves two joint venture partners, China National Offshore Oil Co. and Shell Petrochemicals Co.; three prime contractors: Bechtel, Foster Wheeler Ltd. and Sinopec Engineering Inc.; and numerous subcontractors throughout the world.

As Choi sees it, less and less engineering work will be conducted from the home offices of engineering and construction companies (E&Cs). "Successful information-sharing is the key to making these projects work," he says. Bert Aragon, a vice president for Kellogg Brown & Root, Houston, who was also a presenter at the conference, agrees. He notes that there is a trend toward performing more engineering work at local or regional offices and less at the home offices of the E&Cs (Figure 1), which necessitates active collaboration.


Figure 1.

Data-centric design

Along the way, improved data transmission technology and the Internet enabled design firms to distribute design work among multiple offices or between contractors who are sharing the overall design-construction process. This now is a fairly routine process. "With the right procedural controls in place, and sufficient data-trunkline capacity, it is straightforward to run a project from multiple locations," Bechtel's Choi says. A global organization like Bechtel can work on a project around the clock, "following the sun," as the expression goes, with an office in the United States handing off a project to an office in Asia at the end of the American day. Then the Asian operation, in turn, forwards it to a European office.


Figure 2.

Two types of files are critical in this process: a 2D or 3D drawing or model, as well as a piping and instrumentation diagram (P&ID). In both cases, information technology (IT) vendors and their engineering customers have been pushing for more "intelligence" in the files, so they go beyond a static illustration to provide an accessible list of specifications and dimensions ," and even vendor information, in the case of a purchased piece of equipment. This intelligence enhances the design and procurement process, and -- most importantly -- then provides a valuable database for the plant owner. That database, for instance, can serve as part of an asset-management system for production, maintenance and monitoring of the plant.


Adding this intelligence, however, is not a trivial task. During the past several years, software vendors have shifted to a "data-centric" data-management approach from a "document-centric" method. This allows equipment specifications to be stored in a form that is readily transferable from engineering contractor to plant owner. A more subtle but more profound result is the ability to decompose a model or P&ID to its components while the design process is going on -- the better to speed collaborative efforts. "True collaboration can be understood as the ability to work on the same design element from two different locations, at more or less the same time," says Keith Denton, a business development manager at engineering-IT vendor Intergraph, Huntsville, Ala. "With a 3D model, you're often dealing with huge databases that require very careful version control, so that each member of a team is working on the same version of the design." With the shift to data-centric design, each P&ID or equipment drawing is simply a group of queries of the database, which can be handled relatively quickly. When set up correctly, version control becomes an embedded feature of the system.

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