Smart Plant Design

The computer aided design of both process and plant has dramatically changed the way chemical newbuilds are constructed. Muriel Axford reports on how.


According to industrial research advisory firm ARC Advisory Group, the process engineering tools market consists of two major segments: the engineering design segment for chemical plants, which comprises tools used for the physical plant layout, and the process simulation and optimisation segment, which includes tools for conceptual and process design.

Such is the complexity of the process sector that the use of this technology is vital for meeting the demands placed on the new generation of process plants being built today.

3D design tools

According to a report by ARC senior analysts Dick Slansky and Harry Forbes, the tools themselves have to stand up to rigorous use.

"The use of this technology is vital for meeting the demands placed on the new generation of process plants."

"The wide diversity of energy market requirements, potential power sources and enabling technologies drives strong demand for design/build/operate solutions for energy projects in both the oil and gas and power generation sectors. As energy projects become larger and more complex, EPCs have become much more dependent on their 3D design tools. Moreover, data and model management, project management, engineering change management, and design collaboration across multi-discipline engineering organisations have become essential to the overall design/build process," Slansky said.

It is the smooth running of this complex relationship that has led to the growth of suppliers of process engineering tools. Intergraph is a leading global provider of engineering and geospatial software that enables customers to visualise complex data. Through its process power and marine division, the company provides enterprise engineering software for the design, construction, operation and data management of plants, ships and offshore facilities.

Intergraph's SmartPlant 3D is a leading system for enterprise engineering design. The system allows for multiple 3D model referencing and laser scanning integration, which the company says increases engineering design quality, productivity and accelerates project schedules. Intergraph estimates that customers using its SmartPlant 3D typically realise 25-35% initial increases in productivity.

Commenting on the capabilities of Intergraph's technology, ARC senior analyst Tom Fiske said: "EPCs and other users of SmartPlant 3D are constantly looking for ways to improve productivity and reduce project schedules and design errors."

Intergraph has worked with many of the world's leading chemical producers and EPCs, building ongoing relationships. Most recently, chemical major BASF announced that it had renewed its Global Alliance Agreement with Intergraph for SmartPlantEnterprise engineering software over the next three years. The agreement extends BASF's usage of Intergraph SmartPlant software suit solutions, which provide full design construction, materials and engineering and data management capabilities for the creation, safe operation, maintenance and capital project lifecycle management of large-scale projects. This is the third agreement renewal between BASF and Intergraph in the past 20 years and covers BASF's sites worldwide.

Process modelling

Process modelling is a key element in process engineering. AspenTech is a leading supplier of software that optimises process manufacturing. The company's Aspen Plus is among the leading process modelling tools for conceptual design, optimisation and performance monitoring for the chemical, polymer, speciality chemical, and coal and power industries.

The features of Aspen Plus include an extensive database of pure component and phase equilibrium data for conventional chemicals, electrolytes, solids and polymers, and the ability to simulate large-scale and complex processes. AspenTech says that its modelling tool has allowed its customers to realise up to $10m a year in capital savings resulting from improved designs and up to $1m a year in reduced labour costs from improved conceptual engineering workflow.

It is not only the drive for bigger and more complex plants, but also the drive for savings that are set to see the demand for process engineering technology grow. An ARC study, Process Engineering Tools Worldwide Outlook, estimates that by 2013 the market for such systems will reach $3bn. During 2008 the market was just under $1.8bn. 

While saving costs is a key, UK-based company Process Systems Enterprise (PSE) points out that process modelling can also improve yield, throughput and product quality simply by using optimisation to determine the best path for key operating variables. PSE is a global provider of process modelling technology and model-based engineering services to the process industries.

When modelling is used to better understand a process plant, it is then possible to troubleshoot a plant leading to an improvement in reliability and quality, says PSE.

PSE's gPROMS process modelling system has been widely used by polymer manufacturers, which, PSE says, want to extract more value from their plants. The gPROMS system is also said to reduce the time to market for new processes or products as well as reducing capital and operating costs.

According to ARC's Tom Fiske, increasing pressure to improve engineering efficiency and reduce costs the focus on what process engineering tools can provide will intensify. "Many operating companies are looking to increase efficiency and cut costs of their manufacturing operations. Process engineering solutions are increasingly playing an important role in the operational phase of plants and assets through the use of simulation and optimisation techniques," he says, adding that the tools also had a part to play in supporting a company's lifecycle management initiative.