3-D software cuts costs for $54 M energy plant design

A new type of computer modeling for the construction industry that allows engineers to create 3-D designs has helped a Belle Vernon, Pa.-based construction firm avoid common mistakes and cost overruns in drafting and building a US$54 million coal processing plant that became operational in August.

Farnham & Pfile Construction Inc. was able to win the design contract, in part, due to a $300,000 investment it made in 3D PLM CATIA (computer-aided three-dimensional interactive applications) and Enovia virtual product design and product data management applications from IBM Corp. subsidiary Dassault Systemes, said Tom Porterfield, the company's vice president of operations.

That investment also included eight Unix-based IBM RS/6000 machines to run the CATIA and Enovia applications as well as IBM IntelliStations and laptops used by the customer -- Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy Inc. -- to view electronic maintenance documents, said Joe Bellasperanza, a consultant at Monessen, Pa.-based BV2, the company that's providing Consol with CATIA software support.

Prior to designing and building the computer-controlled coal processing plant in Mondsville, W.V., engineers at Farnham & Pfile typically used 2-D computer-aided design (CAD) systems to draft plant designs. But those systems had limitations, since they weren't completely accurate in "sizing" pipe runs throughout a plant and ensuring that the piping wouldn't interfere with other pieces of equipment or provide enough clearance for maintenance.

For example, a big chunk of the construction overhead for Consol's coal processing plant is $6 million worth of ceramic piping that runs throughout the facility. In previous plant designs using 2-D CAD systems, if an engineer guessed that a 45-degree elbow was needed and it was later determined during the construction phase that a 43-degree elbow should have been used, Farnham & Pfile would have to remove the existing elbow and "refit" it with the right part, resulting in thousands of dollars of downtime and wasted materials, said Porterfield.

Farnham & Pfile was able to "nail" the design without any mistakes using the CATIA systems, reduce supplier costs by 30% and bundle those savings into the contract since it didn't have to "factor in" errors and cost overruns that might otherwise have occurred, said Porterfield.

Dan Yanchak, manager of the process group at Consol Energy, said he wasn't aware of cost savings in the actual construction of the plant resulting from the use of CATIA systems. But, Consol was able to invest more than before in expensive ceramic and polyethylene piping since the CATIA systems "allowed us to model the piping to a fine degree and put the correct piping in the plant the first time."

Kevin O'Marah, an analyst at Boston-based AMR Research Inc., said the 3-D CATIA design systems are helping construction firms such as Farnham & Pfile win contract bids "because it allows you to see in exquisite detail which [plant equipment parts] fit together or don't fit together."

Using the CATIA software, Farnham & Pfile was also able to create an "electronic maintenance manual" incorporating the various manufacturers' maintenance literature, which Yanchak and colleagues can easily access.

"So if we want to know the costs of running pumps for a unit, we have that information at our fingertips, rather than going through a testing process to determine the costs of running that unit or to replace equipment in that unit," Yanchak added.

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