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You Are Entering Another Dimension: New Software Allows Power Plant Engineers To Peer Into The Future

Dorothy Pomerantz
March 01, 2017
A typical power plant is a very large and very complicated network of machines for making electricity that must be kept in good order. It's not an easy task. During the design phase of a power plant upgrade, for example, engineers must consider every detail, including the way old and new pieces of steam pipes—some as thick as tree trunks—fit together. “Even the most experienced engineers can get it wrong,” says Stacie Tibos, GE Power's lead engineer for steam power systems in the U.K.  That costs time and money — in some cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars a day in penalties.
In the past, GE engineers relied on plans built from 2D blueprints and 3D computer-aided design (CAD) files. “But the second the project starts, the plan is wrong,” Tibos says. “Real life kicks in.”

But last year Tibos and his team in Rugby, England, started using special 4D software to get life under control. The tool allows them to time stamp their models and help flag future conflicts. By creating models that include the fourth dimension — the passage of time — engineers can see how Tuesday's work will impact the project next Friday. For example, if a piece of scaffolding is delayed, engineers can run simulations to figure out whether the new project timeline puts people (welders and scaffolders) and equipment (a crane lifting the turbine) in the same place at the same time and plan accordingly. “It’s almost a crystal ball effect, so you can see things happening in the future,” Tibos says.

GIFs made from GE Power's 4D software. “You create your plan upfront, and it all looks nice and rosy, and you think you can execute it,” Tibos says. “But the second the project starts, the plan is wrong. Real life kicks in.” GIF credits: GE Power

New 4D planning also helps Tibos improve equipment use. Typically in power station upgrades, workers erect and break down scaffolding as needed. By running the project through 4D modeling, engineers can see that a bit of scaffolding that would have been taken down and then rebuilt two days later for another job could be left in place without being in the way.

Being able to watch the project play out over time also allows for “what-if” analysis, so engineers can predict what changes might be needed in the days ahead based on today’s work. So, for example, if an important shipment of pipes doesn’t show up on time, they can come up with alternative tasks for that day.

GE used 4D planning for the first time last year on a power plant upgrade in rural India. The engineers in Rugby were excited about how well the new system worked. It got engineers from different departments working together to make sure everything operated effectively and efficiently. Tibos says 4D planning helps create “a schedule you can believe in.”

In the future, GE hopes to use 4D design with augmented reality to allow for pre-job and safety training and to help customers visualize a plant before it’s built.