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sts.components.contact.mr.placeholder Sebastian Webel
Mr. Sebastian Webel

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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation
 

Simulation and Virtual Reality

Building Industrial Facilities in the Virtual World

With a view to saving time and money while improving accuracy, Siemens engineers developed an entire desalination plant in the virtual world.

Many drought-prone areas rely on seawater desalination for their water supply. One such place is Mallorca, where a plant equipped with Siemens technology will now serve as a model facility. Siemens engineers developed the plant in the virtual world to test innovative engineering techniques.

Water is a valuable resource nearly everywhere on the Iberian Peninsula. And because Spain suffers from extreme droughts with alarming regularity, water is particularly valuable if it can be used for drinking. Empty reservoirs, rationed drinking water, and withered fields are now a common feature of life in Spain. On the other hand, the scarcity of fresh water has also given Spaniards expertise with regard to seawater desalination, because the country has plenty of saltwater along its coasts.

Huge Market for Desalination Plants

“Several years ago the Spanish government initiated a special development program in order to counteract the scarcity of freshwater,” says Dr. Andreas Pirsing from Siemens Industry. “As part of this program, around 30 new desalination plants were built along the Mediterranean coast. When it awarded the contracts, the government favored local companies so that it could build up a high level of local expertise. This expertise is now being successfully exported to the rest of the world.”

Experts expect the fresh water crisis to become much worse — with significant implications for the desalination market. Whereas the market had a volume of $18.4 billion in 2012, Companies & Markets predicts that it will grow to more than $50 billion by 2020.

Tourism in Mallorca: Driving Demand for Fresh Water

Siemens is present in this market all over the world. In Singapore, Siemens engineers have won a state-organized Singapore Challenge competition for energy-saving desalination technologies. “Siemens also participated in the Spanish government’s development program,” says Pirsing. “ We equipped several plants with automation technology,  one of which is in Alcudia on the island of Mallorca.”

As a popular holiday resort, Mallorca is especially dependent on desalinated seawater because the island only has a thin aquifer of fresh water, which “floats” on brackish groundwater. This aquifer is incapable of supplying masses of tourists with sufficient amounts of drinking water.

The Alcudia Plant: Focus of Engineering Research

The plant in Alcudia produces fresh water by means of reverse osmosis. In this process, seawater is forced through semipermeable membranes that allow only water molecules through but keep salt out. Using this process, the facility can produce up to 14,000 cubic meters of fresh water per day. Although the Alcudia desalination plant is only one of many such facilities in the Mediterranean region, it has become a focus of engineering research. “It is being used as a case study for a completely new methodological approach that could totally revolutionize the world of engineering,” says Pirsing.

Together with companies such as Airbus, Bosch, and Daimler, as well as several universities and the Fraunhofer institutes, Siemens is involved in the SPES_XT (Software Platform Embedded Systems XT) project, which receives funding from the German Ministry of Education and Research. The aim of the project is to seamlessly integrate software modeling methods and tools with analytical techniques for the development of embedded software.

”A great deal of planning is already being conducted in the virtual world. This is referred to as ‘model-based systems integration,' which means that many plant components are planned, assembled, and tested as computer-generated virtual representations — or models — before they are built in the real world.”

Planning an Entire Plant in a Computer

Siemens’ objective is to refine a method for planning desalination plants that enables coordinated virtual models of individual plant components to be edited on a common IT platform with a uniform set of software tools. “We are employing this method for the Alcudia plant,” explains Pirsing. “This means that we are using a kind of shadow engineering approach to create a simulation of the entire plant and to conduct tests to determine how much time and money this method can save. Alcudia is especially well suited for use as a case study because our good relationship with the customer ensures that we not only have all of the data regarding the plant’s Siemens automation systems, but also the relevant planning data from other contract partners.”

“When we have all the data, as we do here, we can plan an entire plant in a computer without too much difficulty,” explains Dr. Ulrich Löwen from Siemens Corporate Technology (CT), who is responsible for the scientific foundation of the case study. “A great deal of planning is already being conducted in the virtual world. This is referred to as ‘model-based systems integration,’ which means that many plant components are planned, assembled, and tested as computer-generated virtual representations — or models — before they are built in the real world. In the Alcudia case study, we have already simulated the entire process of pumping seawater in the individual wells as well as parts of the reverse osmosis process.” According to Löwen, the simulations have revealed considerable savings potential. “A project such as Alcudia isn’t planned and implemented in detail by a single person. Instead, the task involves numerous engineers from a wide variety of disciplines,” says Löwen.

Needed: Tools that Speak a Common Language.

Project participants include process engineers for handling physical and chemical processes and systems providers for installing high-pressure pumps and membrane modules, as well as pipe planners and electrical engineers for the automation technology and the power supply. “At the moment, each participant uses his or her own tools for this task. Examples include the use of CAD tools for process design and pipe construction and of MS Excel for the lists of drives and instruments. These tools represent the system in completely different ways, including process flow diagrams, 2D or 3D models, circuit diagrams, and much more,” explains Löwen.

Incompatibilities between tools result in a great deal of wasted time and money. That’s because the planning data is processed by many different people, reformatted multiple times, entered into new tools, and translated into various “languages.” In the process, information is lost at the interfaces between tools, and planning data is sometimes misinterpreted by users. “You also continuously risk undermining the consistency of the different planning models whenever anything is suddenly changed. For example, let’s assume that an engineer who is responsible for the pipes’ innumerable fill level sensors and differential sensing devices suddenly notices that he needs another fill level sensor. This sensor and its associated wires then have to be entered into the process engineering pipe, the instrument flow diagram, the automation technology location plan, the electrical plan, and the pipe plan,” explains Löwen.

In order to ensure that such corrections, which affect a wide range of the system’s model representations, can in fact be made efficiently, models must be coordinated with one another. In addition, all of the tools need to speak a common “language” that is based on a centralized IT platform. “Siemens is the only company that can supply a facility planning integration path of this kind — a path that connects all of the different engineering tools that have been developed independently of one another,” says Pirsing. “In other words, Siemens is the only company that has all of the pieces of the puzzle for putting together the big picture — such as the life cycle engineering and facility management system known as COMOS and the SIMATIC PCS 7 control system. That’s why we are the only company that can offer such an engineering method to the market.”

New IT Landscape and a World of Business Opportunities

Collectively, this kind of engineering, which encompasses the entire virtual planning, modeling, and simulation process for the Alcudia desalination plant on a new IT platform, is designed to demonstrate the method'€™s efficiency and calculate how much time and money can be saved. '€œOur project has reached the halfway mark and will conitnue until summer 2015. If we are successful, the results will not only affect the construction of desalination plants,' says Pirsing. '€œbut will open up a newly developed IT landscape in which recipes that address distinct challenges can be easily transferred to other types of facilities such as wastewater treatment plants, pumping stations, and waterworks. Moreover, this method could also be used in other sectors, such as the oil and gas industries, the pharmaceutical industry, and the chemical industry.'

If it is combined with the focal topics of the other SPES_XT project partners'€” companies that are working on comparable issues in the aeronautical and automotive sectors'€” the result could lead to a comprehensive methodology that might transform the entire engineering landscape.

Nils Ehrenberg