How reality capture technology enables effective remote plant maintenance and operations

Data is everywhere, but how do we capture it and use it to our advantage? Whatever the size of your brewery or distillery; in order to solve challenges, create new opportunities, or develop your plant for the future, plant data is often required from multiple sources. This is often a complex issue, as information must be available in the first place, whether that be plant dimensions, equipment used or current performance data - and then verified and interpreted by a trained mind, prior to use.

A great deal of time is often spent finding this information and once gathered, site visits to confirm it and understand the context of a solution are often required as a further step. These site visits can have a significant impact on the individual making the trip, who loses productivity due to travel time, not to mention the large carbon footprint jet travel leaves.

This old way of working adds significant cost to the generation of any proposal and the subsequent engineering solution. The information obtained and used for design is often jealously guarded until the project is completed, at which time it is often stored away in a desk drawer or dusty bookcase and quietly forgotten. As a result, detailed plant modelling and operational information is often concentrated in the hands (or mind) of one individual. Once that individual moves on to another plant or changes employers altogether, this valuable knowledge and the location of relevant design files (both physical and digital) can be lost for good.

That was all just about bearable until COVID-19 came along – and made this approach much more difficult regionally, if not impossible internationally.

So how do we break the cycle?

Travel is driven by the perceived potential for knowledge creation and transfer. The first step is usually to visualise the as-built plant and allow others to understand the context surrounding it – “a picture speaks a thousand words”. Increasingly, this visual data can also include all dimensional data to a high level of accuracy, which allows new equipment to be modelled and engineers to identify how it can be integrated into the broader plant.

Digital solutions by their very nature securely store and distribute this data on cloud-based servers. This means the detailed designs and models for a brewing and distilling plant for example, can be accessed by anyone with permission from anywhere – provided they have an internet connection.

Enabling widespread access to detailed spatial plant modelling and data also lays the groundwork for effective collaboration and the ability to carry out ongoing complex engineering work and site inspections from a distance, potentially engaging skillsets and experience from across the globe.

Various rapid reality capture tools can achieve this task, including 360 Degree Photography, Photogrammetry and Survey Point Cloud. We have demonstrated how this technology can enable continuous improvement for existing and greenfield brewery projects, as well as providing plant teams with relevant technical and operational information in real time.

Recreating your brewery in detailed digital form

So how do these reality capture tools work in practice? At the most basic level, a device is used to take pictures or laser scan the physical environment of a brewery or plant, whilst software then transforms the data they “capture” into detailed spatial 3D models. The three most common reality capture technologies are listed below – keeping in mind their differing price points and varying suitability, dependent on the physical characteristics of the plant, their level of detail and the accuracy ultimately required.

Taken together, these powerful tools can recreate the physical environment of any proposed site, existing plant or production line in great detail and with a high degree of accuracy.

Activities these reality capture tools are well-suited for include:

  • Capital projects: Commissioning detailed planning and design work for a plant or production line and any construction-related activities that would normally require physical site visits or in-person meetings.
  • Maintenance work: Scoping, planning and pricing regular maintenance activities that would normally require physical inspection of the plant/production line facilities.
  • Operations: Managing plant/production line processes, addressing issues and hosting team meetings that would normally require face-to-face contact.
  • Safety inductions: Online inductions are common, but rarely clearly identify risks and communicate where they are in the plant. Furthermore, the models can be used to indicate and work through real scenarios, helping to reinforce learning and information retention.
  • Hazard and operability study: Overlap of 3D models on the existing plant give a clear indication of how any new equipment will be integrated, enabling operations and maintenance teams to be more engaged with the design process and improve the operability of planned designs.

Using reality capture technology, these models can now seamlessly integrate into the detailed, immersive 3D environments they recreate of a plant or production line. A good example of this is one of our clients – the 4 Pines Brewery in Brookvale New South Wales, where we fused 360 photography and intermediate photogrammetry to provide detailed plant layouts of their existing facility in just a few days. This enabled spatial planning and the quotation of upgrade projects, with contractors utilising the linked 360 photographs as a seamless tour to review the plant against dimensioned layouts, without the need for multiple visits to the brewery.

Above: Roundme tour of 4 Pines Brewery in Brookvale, NSW (using VR and 360 degree photography)


Bringing ‘old school’ paper information to life

An overall visualisation of a plant gives the old paper data sitting in dusty files and bookcases a brand new life - allowing it to populate useful information and making it available to all.

Transferring paper records into digital formats is no longer a laborious data input exercise, with AI (Artificial Intelligence) tools utilising optical asset or character recognition able to scan hundreds of documents, locate relevant information and create database records, linked to the 3D visualisation of the plant in minutes, rather than hours or days. This essentially creates a living asset information model, based on a digital twin of the plant.

The latest tools are capable of recognising devices in-situ and once recognised, AI can search and provide information on plant components direct from cloud-based data provided by OEM’s themselves. In this way, the latest documentation is always used to derive a particular plant item, with no database behind it.

This technology is increasingly being used to link the digital twin with the plant itself. Harnessing Augmented Reality (AR) technology – such as Microsoft Hololens or Vuzix glasses (for example), the user has direct access to relevant, real-time information as they walk through the physical plant.

It also allows remote instructions to be provided to operators by equipment experts on the opposite side of the globe - either by visually representing Standard Operating Procedures and coaching them along a planned sequence or through detailed troubleshooting and commissioning assistance.


A new way of working for the long-term?

In the short term, given the vast disruptions wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and government-imposed social distancing rules to slow its spread, adopting these reality capture tools is an effective way to support business continuity and see your facility through to the other side. By allowing you to monitor and maintain plant operations from a safe distance, the need to regularly visit a site in person is minimised.

However, in the longer-term reality capture also presents more fundamental changes to the way plant and production line operations are carried out. Long after life returns to “normal” and social distancing rules are relaxed, environmental sustainability and a company’s individual carbon footprint will remain ongoing concerns.

With business travel responsible for over 10% (110 million tonnes) of total flight-related CO2 emissions in 2019 and the average business trip representing a loss of 7 to 6 hours of productive time, companies are likely to question the need for regular travel to and from production sites in future. The financial cost savings alone from fewer flights and hotel stays will build a strong case for a permanent shift towards these new ways of remote working.

Ultimately, these technologies can contribute to significantly less travel time and reduced environmental impact during the design and ongoing operations of your brewery plant, distillery or production line. They allow collaborative teams to work effectively over extended distances and bring multidisciplinary experts together - providing connectivity for organisations across the globe.

When you’re marching together in the same direction, great things can be achieved that make everyday better!

About the Author
James Ludford-Brooks

Senior Process Associate - Brewing & Distilling

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