Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 4 (April 2000)

Automated Engineering

Over the years, I’ve heard many inspiring stories about engineers and their triumphs. But I was particularly impressed by a tale I heard recently about a group of engineers who met some tough challenges in the power and process industry and, in so doing, set a new course for the manufacturing community at large.

The events took place at Black & Veatch Pritchard, a plant engineering and construction firm in Overland Park, Kansas. The company's vice president of engineering, Ed Edmondson, who related the story at the recent Daratech Plant 2000 conference, began by describing the challenges his firm encounters every day: "We have to maintain a profitable business in a highly cyclical, high-risk, low-margin industry-all while competing against a growing number of low-cost engineering centers in developing countries. No problem, right?"

Unfortunately, Edmondson says, much of the engineering work that his company and others like it normally do has been moving to these centers "at light speed." Indeed, while major engineering and construction firms continue to perform the lion's share of the conceptual and coordination work on plant-design projects, these new firms offer compelling advantages for executing the engineering tasks. Their engineers are highly competent. And their costs are less, not only because their wage rates and costs of living are lower, but also because they have adopted new, low-cost enabling technologies.

"We could have joined in and exported our engineering work, but we decided to find new ways to compete," Edmondson says. Being process engineers, they evaluated their practices, and reached an obvious conclusion: Their software tools, while individually powerful, were almost completely isolated from one another. Thus, their work flow was restricted by redundancy and human error, resulting from manually entering the output from one program into the next. "We embarked on a path called 'automated engineering,'" he says, "to connect these islands of automation."

Edmondson described how his team members used linking tools from Intergraph and developed their own software to build bridges between their best-of-breed, but disparate engineering programs. To illustrate the concept, he showed a dazzling demo of how the system automatically extracted data from a 2D plant diagram, entered it into a pipe-routing program from Design Power, and built a first-pass 3D model on screen-complete with thousands of pipes, fittings, tanks, and vessels-in a matter of seconds. "Typically, it takes six months to get to this point," he says. "Now we're doing it in a few days."

There are hundreds of such connections that can be made, says Edmondson. "We can take that piping configuration and automatically load it into a pipe-stress analysis program, for instance, and then input the results into a fluid-hydraulics calculation program." Ultimately, he hopes to develop a self-learning, knowledge-based system, in which the computer would draw on rules and experience to create best-practice designs.

Edmondson's story of tackling the interoperability problem head on-rather than waiting for vendors to deliver solutions-holds a profound message for all manufacturing enterprises. Succeeding in the new global marketplace will require bold and innovative initiatives. And building links to fully leverage our powerful information technologies is one that can provide the next great competitive advantage.

Phil LoPiccolo: Editor-in-Chief