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Plant Software – Where are we headed? by Joel Harris

By on January 3, 2011 in Autodesk, Autoplant, Editorial, Smartplant with 10 Comments

Having been involved with various plant design software packages over the years, and watching the evolution of new platforms, features, buzzwords, etc., I constantly wonder “What’s next?” Over the years we’ve seen ADev Pro-Pipe and EDA Designer merge into Rebis AutoPlant, only next to be purchased by Bentley. CADCentre became AVEVA, PDS being outmoded and SmartPlant moving to the forefront. Recently, Intergraph purchased Coade and made a lot of CADWorx users very nervous. I won’t even go into the “Where are they now?” file populated by 4Front, UHP Process, CEA International, CADPipe, et al. Now Autodesk is making waves with its AutoCAD Plant 3D suite in an already tumultuous marketplace.

So as a plant software administrator, how do you know what to plan for? I imagine if you’re heavily invested in time (customization, training, and implementation) and money on one or more plant design platforms, the last thing you want to do is think about throwing it all out for the next big thing! And what will that be? That’s currently where I am at. A lot of talk is centered around legacy data. If you have gigabytes of data in PDS data, for example, do you even consider anymore whether it is state of the art enough to work for future projects? Does the inertia of existing data outweigh the new capabilities being marketed by the leading software vendors out there?

I know this is alot to consider, and I am asking many questions without offering any answers. We can pretty much be assured that converting data (drawings, models, databases, etc.) from one platform to another is not going to be easy. It gets even worse if you switch vendors – you might as well plan on doing most data conversion yourself or via a consultant. This seems like a great business opportunity for someone with the right timing and skills.

Next question: does ISO 15926 solve any of this? In theory, yes. However, without owner/operators (the primary stakeholders in existing plant data) making a big push for this standard to be implemented by their contract engineering firms we won’t see any movement towards this in the near future (in my humble opinion). When (and more realistically “if”) the demand for ISO 15926-compliant plant software gains strength the major players in plant design software will have to begin adhering to that standard or be left on their own island. Bentley is currently banking on this scenario.

So if we agree that the major players (in no particular order) are AVEVA, Intergraph and Bentley – with Autodesk recently showing a strong interest – then I guess this is the bracket to watch. (Note: if I’ve missed anybody on this list chalk it up to my own regional myopia.) Despite (or due to) the recent economic downturn worldwide, engineering firms are looking at more efficient, effective ways to execute plant engineering and design projects. Innovation tends to favor those companies who are actively listening to the marketplace, have forward-thinking experts in their corner and are well positioned financially. Albeit there is ALOT of existing plant data out there waiting to be converted, linked and utilized by whomever decides to make that part of their software mission. That said, I think the days of proprietary, locked down plant design systems are numbered. The winners will be the ones with the not only the coolest software but also the best tools for integrating existing plant data into their software at runtime. Let me know your comments, as I am interested in hearing your thoughts about this.


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About the Author

About the Author: The almighty Zortar (Joel Harris) is a piping designer with 25 years experience. In addition to piping design, Joel created the first Autodesk Plant 3D college level curriculum and teaches piping design fundamentals at his local college. Joel was a project manager on Project X and is a leader in the Krew. He has garnered the reputation of being "The Most Interesting Man In The World". .


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There Are 10 Brilliant Comments

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  1. dave says:

    Great post Joel! I agree with all of your points as they were spot on. I would add 2 things here.

    1) The vendors need to focus on interoperability of their existing software portfolio. Many vendors have deep software portfolio’s designed for different industries (AEC, EPC, etc). Often times that software has functionality that would be very useful to plant design. What we need is to be able to leverage that software/functionality seamlessly inside of our plant software environment. This will not only make for a smoother, more efficient work flow but will entrench EPC’s into the vendor with the deepest portfolio. As such, it will become even less desirable to ever switch software platforms/vendors.

    2) Leveraging existing game technology to make plant visualization techniques out of the dark ages. With one exception (Navisworks) Today’s viz software is archaic, bloated and slow. This is due in large part to unoptimized geometry in the models. Autodesk does the best job here but there is room for improvement. We need real time feedback on our entire plant while being able to fly around at 30 frame per second. Of course hardware plays some role in that. Harnessing the power of cloud computing could help mitigate some of these issues. I would add however that the ability to do this has existed for years in gaming without the need for a cloud based solution.

    Great article Joel, thanks!

  2. tkmashl says:

    Nice post, it will be interesting to see what we are using in 5 or 10 years down the road.

  3. dave says:

    This was sent to me by Harold Monk

    Joel – Great article, thanks for your insight into software companies and challenges facing CAD Managers. One thing that I would like to add is the support issue that continues to hamper managers like you, in trying to design and implement such piping packages. Adding new features after features without supporting or fixing known problems causes CAD Managers to become very leery and cautious in buying new software.


  4. Jason Drew says:

    I have to agree with Dave’s comment about leveraging proven 3D graphics technologies in plant design software. I have seen posts from users of PDMS claiming they can load/open an entire plant and still navigate around in the model smoothly.

    I would like to add my opinion on data managment with plant design software. It seems there has always been a gap between the engineering disciplines and bridging that gap is critical. If designer X is making a change in the model set in motion by engineer Y and engineer Z doesn’t know about it first, chances are designer X will be putting in some overtime.

    So not only does the backed database come into play by offering a SINGLE data repository for all design applications, the companies interoffice correspondence system and document management system should to be factored in as well.

  5. Zortar says:

    I find what you are saying about data management to be true. It is often the task of document control personnel to capture project information from various contractor documents, formats, etc. into the “vaulted” information. This is usually done months after the project is complete and may not be noticed by other projects that are in progress. I just read a statement from Colin Pearson of ABB Automation, Institiute of Engineering Technology, that claims that “the biggest revenue loss in all plants around the world is actually operator error, and that is not operators making mistakes, it is operators not having the information on hand to make the right decisions at the right time.” I think that says alot about the need for centralized data repositories and efficient methods for ensuring that the information contained in the project documents is quickly incorporated into the existing plant data assets. If the owner/operators would award projects with the value of preserving long-term plant data in mind, there would be more integration between the owner/operator and the contractor without sacrificing competitiveness.

  6. Greg says:

    I like the idea, well done!

  7. EDW says:

    Interesting stuff. How widely adopted do you consider ISO 15926 to be in the current industry, and as promoted by the major players Bentley, Aveva, and Integraph? If this is the way of the future then it’s a challenging one considering the diversity of data formats in the process industry at the current time.

  8. M. ElHarras says:

    Very interesting, I believe we need to consider as well the integration and collaboration environment between the engineering applications; i.e. using the same tag across multiple disciplines without the need to retype is an advantage.

  9. Todd says:

    Zortar, It’s now almost exactly 2 years later (February 2013) after you originally posted this and I came across your blog here while doing an internet search on these companies in question. I’m interested in your’s and other reader’s thought about developments and directions since you originally posted this.

    I am an engineer who is wondering about the task to bring one of the largest U.S. based chemical manufacturing sites up to an ‘intelligent’, integrated, Smartplant type of system (sorry to bias it towards Intergraph). We have hundreds of thousands of flat files, old ones are hand drawn, new ones are electronic (like everyone has these days), that likely will never get converted due to sheer manpower. I’m wondering about a ‘gradual’ shift using the technology simply moving forward on future capital projects.

    Thoughts? Recent developments? Any emerging leaders making new developments?

    • zortar says:

      In the past two years, I’ve been watching the market as much as possible and have observed the following from my little corner of the engineering world:
      1) We seem to running into more owner/operators asking for engineering packages in digital format. By this, I don’t mean just the construction documents (PDF, DWF, etc.) but the design data as well. In particular, an increase in request for work to be done in CADWorx and Intergraph SmartPlant. The CADWorx stuff is typically upstream and midstream clients with minimum operating data (these facilities do little processing and have a much shorter lifespan than refineries) and a penchant for AutoCAD deliverables. They’ve expanded this to include 3D models of their facilities as deliverables, whereas a few years ago they would not have required this. Many companies that are committed to AutoCAD-based work have moved away from AutoPlant towards either CADWorx or AutoCAD Plant. Many clients bidding $100 million and up (TIC) projects are leaning toward engineering companies touting Intergraph, PDMS and, believe it or not, PDS experience.
      2) In terms of SmartPlant, I have limited personal experience with using it, but I do know one thing: by requiring projects to be developed in SmartPlant and data deliverables in SmartPlant format the O/O is skewing the playing field away from local, smaller engineering firms towards the larger, global firms. These firms, who have enterprise licensing as well as other specially negotiated software implementations, can be very competitive when bidding for work. Partner this along with their already well-developed offshore offices and you have a formidable juggernaut from the perspective of the small to mid-size engineering company. I believe this will, over time, change the composition of successful domestic oil & gas engineering providers; possibly causing more buyouts of the smaller firms.
      3) You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Bentley or OpenPlant with regards to the larger firms and the O/O requests? This is not personal bias – I just haven’t seen a demand for it out there yet in North America. I expected the marketing of ISO 15926 capabilities in OpenPlant to take it farther along in popularity. Maybe its happening overseas where I know less about the oil & gas markets. I think more competition among the software vendors benefits all of us – I think right now Intergraph may be pulling ahead of Bentley.

      These are just my observations and opinions, and I welcome any un-biased feedback with regards to them.

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