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Paul's blog: The future set before your eyes

New advances in Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software can bring significant increases in efficiency and eliminate costly mistakes, says Atkins’ CAD Manager for water & environment, Paul Heath.

A tool that promises to save money, improve efficiency, aid health and safety, ease planning and reduce delivery time on projects, sounds just too good to be true.

However, 3D visualization has been proven to achieve all of these things. The logic is incredibly simple. If you can create an accurate model of a project you can gain a better understanding of potential problems and eliminate them before they cause costly errors. With water companies keen to avoid unexpected costs, this technology could not be more appropriate for its time.

The ability of 3D modeling to communicate a design outstrips traditional plans and helps to reduce delays in the planning process. This is in part due to the technology’s integration skills, allowing for much greater understanding of the environment in which a plant is located. Modeling works together with traditional plans to enhance the planning process and aid decision-making.

Contractors are always keen to start work on a project as soon as possible – even more so in the current economic climate - as it costs money to have men and machinery waiting for a start date. Delays can be extremely expensive. With this in mind the time benefits that 3D modeling can bring are tangible. Deadlines for project delivery often incur cost penalties, giving further reason to avoid delays due to misunderstandings and errors caused by uncertainty.

It is the visualization that 3D modeling achieves which supplements traditional plans so effectively. It enables issues to be identified and addressed immediately and allows problems to be designed out at any early stage, so saving time and money. Clients are able to visualize the job up to 12-18 months before completion, avoiding factors being imposed on operators. Potential issues of concern can be negotiated, allowing details to be altered to fit the client’s requirements. All of these things add up to improved client confidence. In addition a marked decrease in the number of actions on designers following design reviews has a direct impact on costs due to less reworking of designs.

Health and safety can benefit enormously from 3D analysis. United Utilities, a proponent of 3D tools, now has one of the lowest rates of health and safety related incidences in the UK. Modeling new plant, combined with existing plant when necessary, can ensure that access to pumps and pipe work for maintenance is safe, practical and meets regulatory requirements.

3D visualization is a major aid in HAZOP (Hazard and Operability) and ALM (Access Lifting and Maintenance) reviews, providing reviewers and stakeholders with realistic fly-throughs and still images in graphic detail to enhance their conceptions of the plant, as existing, through the construction process and on to completion. This is particularly important when construction of new facilities is spread widely across an operational site, rather than being confined to one isolated area.

The use of drafting packages such as AUTOCAD and Microstation allows any structure to be modeled in 3D. In addition to this, Microstation provides automation so detailed procedures can be considered that may be critical to a site or application. For example, a turning circle of a crane can be shown on a site where space is limited. For sites with a small footprint it is possible to drop a model into Google Earth to give aerial visualization.

When new processes are to be installed operators can also be given intelligent data on how these will work. Where a new wastewater treatment works is to be improved whilst existing services must be maintained on a tightly constrained site, 3D modeling can provide enhanced visual information aiding the planning process as well as design reviews, as was the case when Atkins provided modeling for United Utilities’ wastewater treatment works in Wigan, which serves a population of 345,000.

The assistance that 3D modeling can provide in helping stakeholders visualize a proposal is remarkable. This improves stakeholder confidence and ensures any issues of concern can be addressed satisfactorily at a very early stage in the project. The level of detail that modeling can provide can assist in planning applications, particularly in circumstances when planning is not straightforward, in a rural environment for example. Modeling can help to give assurances that a proposed development can be designed to be unobtrusive and provide realistic models for clients, plant operators, local authorities and the public.

Atkins began using advanced 3D modeling technology in December 2005 when asked by United Utilities to do 3D design for improvements to its Milnthorpe Wastewater Treatment Works close to the Lake District National Park. Because of its location there were obvious sensitivities to be considered in relation to this project. The existing works had to remain operational whilst the improvements were in progress and the original site sloped and was very tight on space. Using 3D modeling to supplement the traditional plans, Atkins was able to foresee and avert difficulties associated with shoehorning the new works into the existing site.

Part of the 10M Arnside improvement project, the Milnthorpe works consisted of new inlet works, compact activated sludge plant tanks, a selector tank with combined distribution chamber, a sludge treatment facility and submersible pumping stations. 3D was used to model the safety aspects of the improved works and identify areas of risk. The model helped to iron out major issues regarding construction, identifying areas where savings could be made from realignments. All of this helped to reduce delays on-site and so save money.

The model aided HAZOP and access, maintenance and lifting reviews. The 3D presentations helped the operators to visualize the proposed works and enable them to contribute to the process ahead of implementation.

Clearly, 3D visualization is already bringing huge benefits to engineering projects. With designers able to derive plans and sections directly from the 3D model, cost effectiveness is improved, helping water companies respond to the challenges faced during Amp5. But the future looks ever more promising. This technology is one that is developing rapidly. Combined with Google Earth, 3D modeling is now being used provide water companies with an integrated data base of assets, providing real-time data of how the network is performing and enabling managers to monitor and control operations remotely.

The beauty of 3D visualization is that it enables a consultant to communicate, test and transfer ideas in a way that is more accessible and interactive than ever before. The power of this should not be underestimated. It transforms the relationship between the consultant and the client, improving the transfer of information and creating a familiarity with a proposal that traditional plans alone can never realize.

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