3D Modeling: Turning Engineering on its Head

Mark Malecek is the Vice President of Operations as well as a senior project manager involved in a wide range of projects at CWA. With over 30 years of engineering experience, he has witnessed the development of 3D modeling since its inception and is intimately familiar with the impact it has had on the field of engineering design. In the interview below, Mark talks about the ways in which 3D modeling has changed how engineers create, collaborate, and communicate with their clients.



How is 3D modeling used in engineering?

3D modeling is used to build a virtual model of the object that we’re designing. Our business is industrial facilities and 3D modeling allows us to build that facility in a virtual 3D model space. Once we have the image built, we can then use it for other analytical purposes such as solid particle flow modeling or stress analysis. We also use it for space proofing. When multiple disciplines are involved like structural, mechanical, piping, and electrical we can put it all into the model to make sure that it fits and then, of course, we also use it to show it to our clients.

How has 3D modeling changed engineering work?

3D modelling has turned engineering on its head. It’s very revolutionary and has really created a generational shift in thinking. The technology came out about 20 years ago but it’s really just entering into the mainstream now because a new generation has brought that with them.

The way people used to approach engineering was that if you wanted to design something, you would conceive of it in your mind in 3D, you would get a designer who could see it in 3D, and the designer would draw it in 2D. The designer would be creating a two-dimensional description of an object that is actually three-dimensional. Basically, you would draw it in 2D first, and then you would build it for real. You didn’t get to see what it looked like in three dimensions until after you actually built it.

What 3D modelling has done is completely reverse that process, where we now get to build it virtually before we actually build it in real life. We construct a 3D image first and then we design it and draw it in 2D, so we’re developing our 2D design from the object that we’ve already built as opposed to the other way around. That is a very big shift in thinking and it has pretty much taken a new generation to start thinking this way. We’re just at the point now where our engineers and designers who were young and just starting out when 3D was coming into use have been working this way for about ten years, and they now have the experience and are leading the way.

What is the advantage of 3D modeling for clients?

The big advantage for our clients is to visually see what they’re getting before they get it. In the past, engineering ideas were only communicated in two dimensions. We live in a three-dimensional world, but we communicate it in two. But the reality is that, unless you’re in the business of drawings, you can’t easily visualize in 3D from a 2D image. What we’ve found in the past is that many of our clients look at a drawing, but they don’t truly understand what it represents until it’s actually built, and then there’s often a surprise. I didn’t know it would look like that, I didn’t know I wouldn’t have enough access in this corner, things like that. Now, we use these models with our clients to host walkthrough sessions where our clients will bring their maintenance and operations personnel and we literally walk through the virtual model. They can see it, they can give comments, they can talk about access, about how to maintain something, how to remove a piece of equipment and if there’s enough room for a wrench, etc. so it’s changed the way we communicate.

Does 3D modeling offer benefits to engineers as well?

3D modeling benefits engineering teams as a whole because we tend to work in silos within our disciplines, but when you build the 3D model, it’s a multi-discipline model. Typically, for example, we would have structural engineers designing the structure and mechanical engineers designing the equipment, and in a two-dimensional world, those two things never really properly meet. In a three-dimensional world they do. We use it a lot for what we call space proofing, which is where we add all of the components into the model and see how they all fit. In the old days, when we used to do two-dimensional design, the rule of thumb was to add 50 percent more space than you thought was required and at the end of the day it would still be full because you didn’t get to see all of the ancillary stuff such as the pipe hangers, cable trays, and all the bits and pieces that actually go into a design. Now it fills up right in front of you.

What are CWA’s 3D modeling capabilities?

3D modelling has been around for about 20 years or so, but it’s only made it into the mainstream in about the last ten. I think our first attempt at this was about 15 years ago and in the last ten years we’ve pretty much brought that into our everyday design work so that now, most of our designs are done in 3D. We’ve had the good fortune of having many of our 3D designs actually installed so one of our real strengths is that we have a number of designers who have actually fully implemented their models in the real world.

Is it enough to just know how to build a 3D model or do you also have to know how to build it in the real world?

There’s a very important distinction here. In a 3D model everything tends to look really good because it’s in 3D, and just looking at the model you tend to think it’s correct, but actually it may not be. You still need experience. You need a real-world understanding of what actually works and what doesn’t work, especially when you get into things like flow modelling and the analytical tools. Because even though the model shows that it flows well, it doesn’t mean that you used the right parameters in your design. In reality, a chute that flowed really well in the model may still actually plug. You have to understand what a 3D model really represents. A person can make one mistake in a minute but a computer can make a million, so it’s garbage in, garbage out.

Is there a difference in approach between greenfield sites and brownfield sites?

The challenge with brownfield sites is that you’re dealing with existing geometry. Sometimes that information is available on existing drawings and if it’s a brownfield site, typically that information will be a two-dimensional drawing, however, often the drawings aren’t correct, they aren’t as-built, and they don’t show all the clashes. They don’t always show all the cables and piping and other miscellaneous stuff, so one of the tools that we use is three-dimensional scanning. In a brownfield project we’ll go in and perform a three-dimensional laser scan that picks up where everything actually is and then we import that into our 3D model and work around that. For greenfield sites, of course, you don’t have to do that, so in a sense it’s much easier.

Can 3D modeling be used for smaller projects?

There is no limit to the size of the project for 3D. It can be used for designing a plate or it can be used for designing an entire process plant.

How can 3D modeling be used for dust control?

Dust modelling is a bit of a different thing because it’s an analytical tool that we add over top of a 3D model. It’s similar to flow modelling. What we do is build the model in 3D and then virtually flow particles and the air through it, which simulates dust.

The dust particle modelling is something that, as far as I know, only CWA does. We use a SolidWorks 3D model and we integrate it with a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) model to simulate the air flow and the dust particles through the system. This is something that one of our bright young engineers effectively invented, and it’s been very successful.  We first used it to fix a transfer chute prone to dust emissions and it modelled the situation very accurately. It turned out that small geometrical changes in the shape of that chute work drastically reduced the dust in the model and in real life.

The significance of this is that, in situations where you have dust, ideally you want to eliminate it at the source rather than treating it. Conventionally, when there’s a dust problem, people will add a dust collector, which is effectively a vacuum that sucks the dust out. A dust collector is another piece of equipment that’s problematic. It fills up with dust, it breaks down, you have to clean it, so ideally if you can create a design that doesn’t generate dust in the first place then you don’t have to worry about it.

What are some of the upcoming trends in 3D modelling?

I think the big technological advancement that still needs to happen in 3D modelling is better software integration. Even though we now use 3D, we are still actually tethered to a 2D construction world and by that, I mean we build a 3D model and then we create two-dimensional drawings that we give to the fabricators and contractors to implement. Although we develop the 3D computer model, what we use to actually fabricate and construct from are two-dimensional CAD drawings. This has to do with the way the industry traditionally works. The industry in general can’t handle a 3D model yet. In some instances you can; for example, some fabricators can use a 3D model directly but overall you still need to produce a set of 2D drawings, which means we’re still double handling the work. If we could just use the 3D software directly across an entire project, then we wouldn’t need to do that. I think that’s where the technology needs to go.

The other thing is the integration of 3D modelling software. There are many different software packages that are used — SolidWorks, Plant 3D, Revit, Civil 3D, etc. — and we use them all for different applications, but ideally, they should communicate more seamlessly. There’s a viewer called Navisworks that you can import different packages into for the purpose of looking at them, but it has limited capabilities for doing anything with them, so I think software integration is another area that will probably grow.

What about augmented reality or virtual reality?

There are already some people who are doing that. They use it for certain applications in the mining industry, for example. Virtual reality would certainly be a great way to actually get yourself into the model. I haven’t really seen it applied in our kind of business yet, but it’s coming.