Manifesto for Better Piping Fabrication, from an Expert

Guest Blog by David Myall, managing director of Alias, Ltd. 

Here’s something everyone working in piping needs: A manifesto for better piping fabrication.

How can we get “better” (faster and cheaper with fewer errors) at piping fabrication? What would the elements of an improved workflow be?

Let’s start by understanding the classic workflow, in which an integrated 3D computer model of a new process plant – refinery, offshore platform, chemical plant, power station or pharmaceuticals facility – is built by a team of expert designers. The 3D model ensures clash-free design and an accurate material take-off so that the physical components can be ordered in the right quantities at the right time.

Usually, the pipe and fittings (flanges, elbows, tees) that are required are welded together into small sections – known as spools – which are then shipped to the construction site for installation. Sometimes an entire section of the plant is built in the relative comfort and safety of a workshop and the module is then transported and installed on site.

The team whobuilt the computer model is not the same as the team (usually more than one) who fabricate the pipe spools. In turn, another team constructs the final plant. How do they communicate?

Typically, drawings generated from the 3D model are the medium – they express the requirements that the engineering team put on the fabricators (in fact, the hard copy piping isometric is usually the contractual document). And of course, once the drawings are issued, the 3D model continues to evolve.

If the piping fabricators works with hard copy (including PDF documents), any data they need must be extracted by reading the drawing and transferring information to a spreadsheet, and if any changes to the drawing are necessary – for example to show the position of a field weld which splits the pipe into spools – the drawing must be recreated. This is slow, error prone, and inevitably expensive.

Why isn’t the 3D model shared with the fabricators? In fact, this can be done in an integrated project such as building a ship where engineering, fabrication, and construction are all departments within a single organization. But this is not so easy where the piping fabricator must work with multiple different customers, who use different 3D modeling systems and are often unwilling to share their important IP with third parties.

Some years ago, Alias in the UK – the company behind the Isogen software for automated piping isometric drawing generation – pioneered the use of the Isogen data file (IDF) and the more modern format the Piping Component File (or PCF) for transferring data from engineering to fabrication. Alias is now part of Hexagon PPM, and our Spoolgen software has been used for many years to support a data-centered workflow.

The engineering company uses Isogen to create the piping isometric drawings and then sends the drawings together with the Isogen data from which the drawing was created to the fabricator, who can use Spoolgen to quickly create the drawings and to extract reports to drive the internal processes. It’s a tangible example of a practical process where complex engineering data can be transferred between parties involved in a project without the need for interconnected IT systems.

Working with companies around the world has led us to an understanding of the key principles if we are to build on this foundation and create a truly integrated solution which exploits the new opportunities presented by better computer infrastructure (both hardware and software). We have a road map for Hexagon PPM solutions which guides our work to fill in the gaps. A lot is possible today, and capability of our tools improves year by year.

Here are our guiding principles behind the Hexagon PPM road map for piping fabrication:

3D model neutral. The Isogen format – the PCF – is almost universally supported. Hexagon PPM has made this an open and fully documented format which we encourage everyone to use. We believe we are the best at reading and interpreting the data in these files, based on our unique experience with Isogen itself. Differences between source data can be handled by Spoolgen to produce uniform data regardless of source.

Rich data model. Working with the Fiatech organization and many industry stakeholders, we extended the PCF format so that it included a set of standard fields needed for pipe fabrication and installation. Data in the 3D model should be made available downstream in an easily accessible form.

Industry-leading drawing automation. We continue to invest in the core Isogen technology to automatically produce high quality, consistent drawings on demand. With 40 years of experience behind it, this technology will continue to be the foundation of what we do.

Built in change management. Change is inevitable. The moment a set of drawings is issued for construction, the model changes. HexagonPPM Spoolgen solution handles change by keeping all versions of data and automatically comparing the new version with the last one to ensure stable weld and spool numbering. In addition, changes made in one version are remembered and re-applied to the next.

Data-driven, rule-based workflows. Once the data is received by the fabricator, it should be easy to integrate the piping data from the customer with the fabricators own systems, so that many processes can be automated (for example, generation of testing requirements from process data). In 2018, we’ll introduce a Web API for Spoolgen data to make it even easier to share Spoolgen information.

Automation through configuration. It should not be necessary to write code to achieve the customers’ requirements. Spoolgen supports powerful script based automation, to perform calculations, integrate within-house systems and create flexible reports to support cost estimation, monitoring of progress and documentation generation.

Support for workshop automation. The basic processes of cutting, bending and welding in a pipe fabrication workshop are increasingly being performed by robots. Hexagon PPM has developed a rich XML based report – we call it the Fabrication Interface XML or FIX file – which can be used to pass piping geometry to robots to support automation of machinery.

Support for planning, material management and monitoring. Hexagon PPM solutions now include Smart Production, which supports the management of pipe shop operations – from scheduling of spools to particular lines and/or workstations, through simple material allocation. Spoolgen connects seamlessly to Smart Production using the FIX file.

Support for mobile and remote access. Optimal work processes require that team members have access to data and documents when and where they need it. The Spoolgen and Smart Production APIs will support mobile and web-based access to the live data, allowing welders to enter status information and supervisors to know where production bottlenecks are holding up progress.

Support for handover to construction. Better fabrication work processes support better construction work processes. Spoolgen already supports a publish workflow where Spoolgen data and documents can be made available in the Intergraph Smart Construction model. This is up to date with the true “as-built” and smoothly integrates with data coming direct from 3D. Using web technology allows secure sharing of data between engineering, fabrication and construction without the need for interlinking of internal IT systems.

About the author:

David Myall is managing director of Alias Ltd, a Hexagon PPM subsidiary that specializes in piping isometric drawings, from their generation from 3D computer models, through their use in piping fabrication and documentation of piping systems.

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