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I was in Berlin last week, a fascinating city to host one of the plant/marine engineering world’s premier events: the AVEVA World Summit.  The Summit brings together designers, constructors, operators and owners from across the world and across industries, to share problems and solutions, and learn from AVEVA what’s coming. AVEVA made no major announcements at the event, but here were a few surprises, and the challenges mentioned by the speakers in Berlin were common themes:

These assets are so big and have such a long life that their complexity dwarfs any one individual’s understanding. If you’re not sure what I mean, watch this video about Det norske’s Ivar Aasen project in the North Sea to get a sense of it. These projects need an IT infrastructure that can gather, store and serve asset data in myriad ways and degrees of complexity.

The teams working on these projects are specialists brought together for this one job, and often don’t interact again. The technology serving them needs to protect their intellectual property while making visible project-specific information. Too, these specialists need a common language for collaboration. Increasingly, this is visual to offset the linguistic and time zone challenges.

Our aging workforce is a reality. Experienced designers, engineers, estimators, and other trades are leaving the playing field and new entrants (hard to find) expect a different world of work. They think visually, expect instant access to information* and need to have their lack of experience guided by intelligent systems.

It’s a hyper-competitive world, and companies invest for advantage. One Austalian EPC, Atkins, implemented AVEVA’s next-generation Everything 3D product because of its tight integration between CAD and point clouds. Atkins’ Jim Wright used the giant screen AVEVA had installed for the main stage to great advantage, showing how his team creates a competitive advantage by using laser scanning to quickly and accurately survey a brownfield site, saving project schedule and making it possible to explore more design alternatives. Mr. Wright is one of the first E3D users in Australia, and sees his installation growing — in part because of how E3D yields efficiency improvements. He told me that his team was able to “produce support and structural modification details 50% quicker in E3D — it’s early days yet but it shows great promise, and the client is happy”. When you’re the contractor, it’s all about making the client happy.

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Owner presenters were also looking for ways to be more competitive. In many cases, that means more communication during design and more complete information at asset handover but, as Shell’s Bob Samudio contributed in a recorded message, it can also mean new forms of communication. Shell is working with AVEVA on its mega tablet offering, which aims to make an entire offshore platform available for collaboration on a Microsoft Surface tablet. Last year, we saw the AVEVA team walk through the model, add shadows and a background; this year, AVEVA’s Technology VP Paul Elton used gestures on the touch screen to spin, pan, zoom, scroll and section the model. Deputy Group CTO Arne Winler showed us that AVEVA Net data was behind the model, and that it could be interrogated to highlight all instances of equipment from a particular manufacturer, for example:

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One of the Summit’s best moments came at the very, very end, as people were leaving after the Futures session. AVEVA had been showing off their tablet collaboration product using a Shell model. Earlier, we had learned that it had 4.5 kilometers of handrails (yup, on a platform in the Gulf of Mexico), if that gives you a sense of its size. After the formal session ended, two gentlemen came up to the stage and said they had been involved in the platform’s design, and asked if they could play with the tablet. It was so cool to watch their faces as they explored their design, taking sections, changing lighting and walking its hallways. To them, it wasn’t eye candy but the result of hard work.

Digital or virtual commissioning came up more than I’ve ever noticed before. For the EPC, it’s a way to add a new offering and grow their value to the asset operator; for the owner, it’s a way to get to nameplate production that much faster. It sounds, however, as though we’re still early in the evolution of this idea and that no one has a bulletproof methodology.

The cloud (not laser) is starting to get interesting. AVEVA showed a test version of E3D in the cloud during CTO Dave Wheeldon’s session on day 1; there was so much interest that his team held an impromptu provisioning session during lunch on day 2 of the Summit. Using Amazon Appstream, the setup took just minutes and the performance was not noticeably different from that of a desktop E3D session. AVEVA doesn’t see the cloud app replacing every desktop license but expects customers to rely on the cloud for peak demand, roving workers and other special situations. Mr. Wheeldon was clear: the enabling technology ix just now getting to the point where AVEVA can give cloud users the experience they expect; E3D in the cloud is now in a very limited Beta release. Once it goes through a bit more testing it’ll be more widely available –and we can expect other AVEVA products to make their way to the cloud over time. It seems as though there are still technical hurdles, but the biggest challenges are economic: what will a cloud license cost, and how will that compare to a desktop license?

Finally, these giant projects rely on data data data. A process flow diagram becomes an instrumentation diagram; it gets turned into a 3D model which, we hope, ties into procurement, construction planning, commissioning and so on. If there’s a hiccup at any point, the entire chain of data can’t be trusted. AVEVA Net is the company’s solution for information management, validating and linking all types of data and documents. AVEVA Net featured in just about every presentation given at this year’s Summit. We heard time and again how easy it was to configure and implement AVEVA Net but I can’t help wondering how many people are intimidated by this toolkit approach; might it be better if AVEVA were to offer more preconfigured flavors that projects could then customize?

All of this was nicely tied together in AVEVA’s concept of a digital asset. A project is made up of data in context –a pipe connects things and carries something, a structure holds up an object–  that is built up over the life of the asset and doesn’t stop until the plant is decommissioned. The role of IT in this vision is to support an open data model that includes 3D CAD data but also the other information that is needed for informed decision making. Is the digital asset a reality? Not yet, said Amec’s Colin Fairweather, but we’re getting closer.

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

Update: I had the length of the handrails wrong in the original post. Pesky units J Thanks for the correction, Steve.