SimSci boosts process performance, profit

Oct 15, 2015 | Hot Topics

You likely know that AVEVA and Schneider Electric Software are poised to merge, assuming due diligence and regulatory hurdles don’t throw up insurmountable obstacles. What will that mean for plant designers? For engineering and construction companies? For asset owners and operators? Excellent questions. I set out to find answers at the user conference for SimSci, one of Schneider Electric’s premiere software brands.

SimSci started in 1966, when two chemical engineers commercialized a distillation program, SP3. SP3 grew into PROCESS, a more comprehensive chemical simulation application. From there, the company seemed unstoppable, with an IPO in 1996 and acquisition by Siebe in 1998. Mergers and acquisitions followed to add operator training and new types of chemical processes. Fast forward to 2002. SimSci merges with Esscor to become an Invensys business unit that focuses on simulation for design, operations and optimization. Speed up time again and in 2014, Schneider Electric acquires Invensys to add to its industrial automation capabilities, strengthen its software offering and boost its position in energy-intensive industries.

During these 45+ years, SimSci built capabilities that take chemical processes from inception through increasing levels of detail and economic modeling, to operator training and dynamic process control. In SimSci-speak, that’s plant lifecycle modeling, or optimization from molecular management outwards, all to reduce costs and improve plant efficiency. SimSci SVP Dr. Tobias Scheele used this slide to describe SimSci’s view of the asset lifecycle:

SimSci User Conference 2015

That aligns with AVEVA’s vision for the digital asset, which starts with the output from chemical modeling and extends through operations — but from an equipment information perspective. Combining SimSci with AVEVA gives views into the process or chemistry of the plant, how that physics translates into 3D components and structures, and how that digital model gets built. Then, back to the physics for operations. Train operators on a virtual model before anything is built, so that they rehearse emergency shutdown and more routine tasks until they are built into muscle memory. Maintain a thermodynamic model of the plant so that it can be adjusted for the variations in input and output the plant will see over its life. It’s a spiral that can build upon itself to design more efficient plants, and operate plants closer to their design specifications.

Many of the customers I talked with at the SimSci event represent the biggest of the big in oil & gas, whether contractors or owner/operators. They use SimSci’s products to help them with the chemistry of a process as well as its economic viability. One cool presentation was about fractionation columns that separate inputs into their constituents. As I understood it*, a raw material comes in that needs to be separated into, say, three products. One can do that by going from 1 compound to 2, and then breaking one of those into its single constituents. Or one can go straight from 1 compound to its 3 components by redesigning the process and equipment. If you can remove that intermediate step, splitting one of the 2 to 1+1, you can save 20% to 30% on the CAPEX and 20% to 30% on the OPEX for that one process. The cost of the simulation suddenly becomes negligible.

At a big-picture level, this type of simulation is business-critical. John Derbyshire, President, Technology & Consulting at KBR (a big EPC) spoke about the turmoil in oil and gas caused by low, low prices for crude right now. He sees this leading to a lot of plant revamp or expansion projects that start with performance analyses of the as-is state. Once the as-is state is understood, KBR can use SimSci’s portfolio to model improvements. For example, how to create product from different feeds or figure out ways to improve material and equipment use and energy efficiency. KBR is a public company, so Mr. Derbyshire couldn’t be specific, but it sounded as though he sees the price slump as an opportunity for KBR to help improve the efficiency of many operating assets, to help them be as profitable as possible even at low prices.

Helping customers improve safety and profitability was the central theme of the event. SimSci’s Dr. Scheele covered a number of R&D focus areas that the SimSci team expanded upon throughout the event: creating industry solutions that include preconfigured templates and other content to get users going more quickly; continuing to build on advanced algorithms with decision support and other analytics; offering alternative licensing methods to move simulation from CAPEX to OPEX, in the cloud and with web access. He also introduced SimCentral, which integrates all of SimSci’s various solvers and simulation tools into one platform. My impressions:

  • SimCentral is a slick, modern UI that enables chemical engineers to create a process model once and then refine it as needed without ever recreating it. This is a big deal: in any kind of modeling, recreating or re-keying data adds the potential for error. SimCentral lets lots of different functions use the model for process design or economic evaluation and add to it as needed — but only as far as their permissions allow.
  • SimSci calls SimCentral “Simulation-Driven Engineering”, as one model can be used throughout the entire plant lifecycle to create and test the process, instrumentation, controls, safety, and create training. It lets users play with the plant as it is designed rather than having to wait until everything is in place.
  • SimCentral is still a work in progress and more solvers and capabilities are added with each release, but I thought the Undo feature was really cool (I’m not aware of another simulation tool with Undo — add a comment if you are). Simulation is about trial and error; rolling back to the last state with which the designer was comfortable is an easy way of exploring as many alternatives as possible on the way to a successful outcome.

This is only the second user meeting since Schneider Electric acquired SimSci Invensys in 2014, so Ravi Gopinath, SVP, Schneider Electric Software, gave a quick overview of SimSci’s new home. He said that his group reported revenue over €500 million in 2014 and has 2,700 employees in 8 R&D and 23 project centers worldwide. The business has 1.6 million licenses installed in over 100,000 manufacturing plants, including 48 of the top 50 chemical, 24 of 25 petroleum, 18 of 20 pharmaceutical and 10 of the top 15 mining companies. Biggest software company many have never heard of.

Dr. Gopinath also gave a quick update on the merger with AVEVA. He said the companies are working on their due diligence but didn’t say when the deal would be completed. He was very clear on one aspect, however: no matter what happens, SimSci will continue to be run as part of the Software Business with little or no change customers or employees.

That was one of the few times AVEVA was mentioned. It didn’t come up as often as I thought it would — but this was a simulation user conference and that type of integration may have been outside the realm of the typical attendee. The most I could get out of people was a guarded “it would be nice”. KBR’s Mr. Derbyshire had much stronger opinions. He said that different functions in the design process of a refinery or other plant speak different languages. Simulation is all about thermodynamics and chemistry; basic and detailed engineering is all about pipes and equipment. There may be many operating cases for one piece of equipment, and the layout of a plant may change many times during process design; just shoving all of this into a database isn’t going to integrate anything. But, he said, creating workflows that connect simulation and design data and people could save significant money and time. Mr. Derbyshire sees the integration of AVEVA and SimSci as a way to use engineering data management to improve communication, map simulation and equipment data, and foster data reuse — all things this industry desperately needs.

We already use technology to ensure traceability from one task to the next, just not typically between process simulation and other functions. That fractionation column could have a tag or other reference to tie the conceptual definition to a 3D representation, to the item ordered, to the equipment installed and maintained. But the definitions must be flexible, to allow for the many permutations possible; it can’t be 1:1:1, it needs to be 1:many:many. This doesn’t sound so hard, but it will need new definitions of who owns a task, creates a piece of information and makes it available to others. A bigger problem may be the way the industry awards contracts: the upfront designer may not be awarded follow-on work, projects are billed by the manhour so faster is not always better, and CAPEX may not be connected to OPEX at the asset operator. Will technology cause a change or will other industry forces? Don’t know, but it has to happen.

In the meantime, SimSci is clearly making a difference in its customers businesses, helping them define better ways of producing the products we all rely on. One design change saves 20% in both CAPEX and OPEX? Go!

*Any errors here are completely mine and don’t reflect the excellent explanations from SimSci SVP Tobias Scheele, Product Marketing Manager Livia Wiley and other kind attendees during the event. Did you know that there are over 60 million chemicals on earth? Some chemists believe there are actually billions. I had no idea. My ChemEng training has a long way to go!

Note: Schneider Electric graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation in the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post.

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