Digital Twins Can Help Fast-Track Complex Engineering Projects


An engineering, procurement and construction contractor building a sulfuric acid manufacturing plant in the Democratic Republic of CongoOpens a new window was able to accelerate the project by using a digital twin.

The result: the whole plant was completed in less than two years.

Sulfuric acid is used in copper processing, and the plant is located in the Congo river basin’s copper belt, a land overgrown with trees and dense vegetation.

The pressure to get the job done quickly came from the end customer who wanted a plant built near the Kamoa copperOpens a new window mine because the mine’s hazardous ore was being transported miles distant over poor roads to another processing facility.

Millions of moving parts

A report in Industrial MiningOpens a new window explains the task confronting the engineering team: It had to build a 1,400-tons-a-day manufacturing plant valued at $245 million with its own 20 MW electrical waste-heat power generation system.

Big engineering and construction projects are immensely complicated and are tackled by breaking the job down into millions of constituent parts.

The engineering teams are not only conducting the orchestra but also designing and building the instruments, writing the music and training the musicians.

A delay in the delivery of a part, a late design change, a sudden price shift in a raw material can contribute to project delays, cost increases and yet more problems down the line.

Every element, from when to bring teams of workers on site to where to purchase steel, needs tight controlling and optimizing.

In this case, Hatch,Opens a new window the Canada-based engineering, procurement and construction management contractor, decided to “go live” from the start. And instead of producing traditional mechanical, piping, and structural general arrangement blueprints, the company’s engineers created a so-called digital twin – a live model that different teams from around the world worked on at the same time.

3D plus another dimension

A digital twin is more than a 3D model. It contains all the information about each component and how it interacts with other components and how it performs. Think 4D model.

This meant that engineering quality processes could be performed using the model, at an earlier stage in the project process, and materials could be purchased at an earlier stage, giving the team more procurement options.

For example, piping material was purchased before the isometric drawing production, and piping isometric deliverables were produced round the clock by teams in different global locations.

Having all the information in one place allowed the Hatch to make savings in bulk materials.

Structural steel was a critical element in achieving the fast-track timetable. With integrated structural steel modeling, the team could use a 3D model for layout, analysis, design and fabrication, with designs going straight to automated fabrication management systems.

Just the beginning

The utility of a digital twin doesn’t end with the construction phase. Having a live, accurate model of the existing plant brought benefits into the operation and maintenance phase.

The potential exists to use the model for recording operating data and carrying out predictive maintenance. The data is integral to the digital twin. The performance of every last pump and pipe can be measured, the effectiveness of every system monitored and recorded, and outcomes can be anticipated.

Digital twins do not always prove their economic worth, as Mary Anne Richardson explained.Opens a new window  But in huge engineering, procurement and construction projects, the case for a digital twin appears overwhelmingly proven in aiding fast-track construction.

The digital twin will become the ultimate in engineering project optimization because the data helps manufacturers, engineers and contractors fine-tune every element of a plant — cutting costs, boosting performance and ultimately improving the design.

That applies even to facilities built in the planet’s most remote jungles.