Virtual reality concept

What if you could see exactly what equipment will look like in your facility well before you order and install it? Or virtually walk through a new construction project before breaking ground? Using new technologies like laser scanning, mixed reality, and virtual reality, you can.  

To learn more about how these technologies are changing the landscape of the engineering and construction industry, we spoke with Ben Kirtz, a business development manager with Wood. “Our company provides engineering and construction services for many different sectors across industrial manufacturing,” he says. “We help customers go from concept through construction in their food projects.”

In addition to the oil & gas and energy markets, Wood partners with companies in a wide range of process industry sectors, including dairy, agribusiness, and packaged goods. The company handles both greenfield and brownfield projects, as well as retrofits of aging facilities.

Because each customer is different, Wood remains versatile with its services. “The design of production facilities is ever-changing, and so are the corporate structures that are executing these projects,” Kirtz says. “That’s why we're flexible with our project teams to meet any customer need.”

The technology accelerating the design process

A successful construction project begins with a good blueprint. Wood uses 3D modeling technologies to bring their blueprints to life. Digitizing the design process reduces costs, saves time, and avoids the human error involved in measuring by hand and sketching 2D layouts.

For greenfield projects, virtual reality allows engineers to visualize a new plant before any digging even starts. “You can put on the virtual reality goggles and essentially walk through the plant that they have yet to break ground on to make sure that the material will flow right, there's enough access, and all the equipment is laid out correctly,” Kirtz explains.

For brownfield projects, it’s becoming standard to use laser scanning to create 3D models of production facilities. “That laser scanner spins 360° and takes millions of measurable data points each time it rotates around in a circle,” Kirtz says. “You place the scanner at several different positions within a facility to take these scans. And ultimately you stitch the scans together so that you have a working 3D model of everything in that facility, which you can display using software. That gives you full access to the facility without having to be there.”

Because the laser scanner takes all the measurements, scanning the entire facility becomes a one-person job. That not only saves time and money, Kirtz says, but it’s safer. “You don't have to put as many people out in the field taking measurements. You don't have to interrupt the operations of the existing facility by having several engineers with tape measures running around.” 

Once the 3D model takes shape, the designers and engineers can add in models of the equipment to be installed. “And you start to realize all the little details of your scope that you might not otherwise catch unless you had that 3D scanner. It prevents construction change orders for interferences — for that pipe, for that light, or that column that you just never knew was there because you didn't have accurate drawings with which to start the project.”

As a next step, Wood uses the latest technology to take advantage of mixed reality capabilities. The technology projects the 3D model in front of the viewer while they’re in the physical facility. It allows the user to preview what the new equipment will look once it’s installed, with everything accurately scaled and oriented. It creates another opportunity to check that the equipment fits correctly, leaving enough space for the operators, and that the layout is free of any interferences. 

The technology can also help you identify potential problems before they become real (more expensive) ones. Kirtz once spotted a deviation during a piping installation project. “I didn't have to use 2D drawings and a tape measure to double-check on this — I could immediately see whether the equipment was going in at the right spot or not.”

Keeping up with a changing industry

These new technologies help speed up construction projects, which many processors need to do if they want to keep up with evolving consumer trends.

A specific trend Kirtz sees among food industry clients is an effort to minimize the time it takes to change over from product to product. They’re also looking to innovate on the packaging side to satisfy consumer cravings for convenience, snacking, and ready-to-eat products.

“Think about the yogurt aisle,” he says, “and all the different ways you can consume yogurt — through a pouch, glass jars, plastic cups, or smoothie bottles. The upstream process for making yogurt is largely the same equipment, but there are many different packaging options downstream. Companies are trying to make products as easy and convenient for consumers as possible.”

Time isn’t the only thing that’s tight. Money is as well. 

To keep schedules and budgets in check, Wood uses a stage-gate process. “In this process, you do the engineering upfront and then estimate costs as you go to define the scope of work. Once the scope of work is defined and the budget is set, there shouldn't be any surprises as your project progresses.”

Looking ahead

Food manufacturing infrastructure across the country is aging, and Kirtz urges processors with older facilities to take action now, if they haven’t already. “Those companies are going to need to focus on setting aside monies for electrical gear that is wearing out, looking at energy savings through changing out their lighting, and increasing the efficiency of their heating and cooling systems. Especially the larger food producers that have kept their production facilities for a long time.”

Kirtz recommends seeking expert consultation to examine current equipment and come up with a plan for upgrading it over time. This way, plants know which equipment to replace first in order to avoid emergency downtime. 

Wood will be appearing at PROCESS EXPO this fall as a first-time exhibitor. “It's such a major show in the food industry,” Kirtz says. “Wood is recognized as a major player in the oil & gas and energy sectors.  Participating in this show will showcase our capabilities and experience in process markets.”

To learn more about Wood’s construction and engineering services, and maybe even take a virtual tour through a facility they designed, stop by Booth #4559 at PROCESS EXPO.