Getting the bigger picture from your data
February 4, 2016
Like having a pile of puzzle pieces but no box, are you drowning in data but unsure what it is telling you about your power and water assets?
Gathering and interpreting complex data to detect emerging problems is an important aspect of asset safety worldwide. Avenues for collecting data are becoming more sophisticated and accessible and less expensive. We routinely gather data and explore data gaps, data quality and data processing, but how often do we rethink the fundamentals of presenting and communicating data?
For data to be useful, it has to help us diagnose issues and design solutions to keep our assets, our operators, and the public, safe. To do this, it must be understood. Traditionally we have used 2D methods to present data, but forming a picture of an asset from 2D information is very time consuming, often requiring site visits and hours exploring drawings, drill logs and construction photos to understand the complexities of the asset’s design and construction.
Because we have evolved in a 3D world and our senses have evolved to match, the human brain has significant and sophisticated resources dedicated to visual processing and understanding objects in three dimensions. This makes 3D models a naturally efficient medium for rapidly displaying, interpreting and communicating complex information relating to our assets.
Bringing data to life
With advances in technology, we are now able to quickly convert raw data to build 3D models from 2D drawings, and also to animate data in 3D to show change and movement over time. In 3D, assets can be quickly visualised and explored digitally from any angle. This spatial representation allows us to see important things that may otherwise be hidden, or not stand out, in the context of the overall design and layout of an asset.
Features normally hidden can be drawn into a 3D model, such as internal layouts or features under the ground. These can all be independently switched on and off, so that elements critical to the analysis can be considered individually, or contextually against other features to get the bigger picture.
With 3D information at their fingertips – whether on desktops in the office or on smartphones or tablets in the field – engineers, data analysts or field inspectors can better understand assets in significantly less time, reducing costs, complications and misunderstandings.
Time changes everything
To understand our assets, we rarely look only at the here and now. Change is the key to identifying and preventing potential failures or problems – so we must look carefully at past and present data and continue to watch our data into the future. In the past, representing change over time could only be economically achieved in 2D because manually updating 3D models was laborious and time-consuming.
Specialist power and water consulting firm Entura has developed systems that allow data sets (from Excel, Access or other programs) to be automatically processed and displayed onscreen, producing 3D ‘snapshots’ or even animating data directly in 3D. The systems have been developed to allow quick tweaking of model parameters to show different data sets individually or in combination, to exaggerate movements where critical changes are too small to directly detect by eye, or to use colour coding to clearly represent critical parameters.
Perhaps the most significant advantage is that these models can be updated in a matter of minutes rather than days, by individuals with little or no CAD experience, simply by adding new data into the model’s database.
Should seeing always be believing?
Like any tool, 3D representations have some limitations. However, with experience and a little caution, the power of 3D representation can be fully exploited with minimal risk.
Just as 2D drawings can have mistakes or exclusions, 3D models are only as good as the data from which they are built. If incorrect drawings are used to build a model, or the wrong data is used in animations, 3D outputs will not represent the real world but may still look very convincing.
Like any engineering analysis, when 3D models are first produced, a clear review and approval process is needed, and model results must be verified against expected performance to ensure that the tool is robust and can be used reliably into the future.
The real challenges of complex assets
Entura has applied advances in 3D data modelling and presentation to support the management of a range of water and power assets including hydropower stations, water pipelines and dams.
In each of these three examples, 3D modelling delivered a comprehensive picture of system behaviour over time:
- Our use of 3D modelling to explore the movement of turbine plinths at Hydro Tasmania’s Gordon Power Station contributed to a clearer understanding of a pattern of ongoing movement. This helped to identify potential causes and inform future remedial works.
- Developing a 3D model of a steel pipeline made it much easier for an asset owner to understand and make decisions about the extent and possible causes of unwanted movement of the pipeline and its supports. Our model clearly indicated the extent of movement, leading to a targeted engineering solution that directly addressed the root cause of the problem without unnecessary investigation, over-design or delay.
- When we applied 3D modelling to a hydropower dam built on a geologically complex foundation including dissolvable limestone, the resulting model combined the dam’s foundation profiles, underlying geology and leakage rates, and animated 3D water levels in the foundation. The 3D model is helping the owner to quickly and fully understand the data and easily monitor the performance of this complex asset.
In each of these cases, new data can be quickly integrated, allowing easy ongoing monitoring and clearer communication of the current and likely future behaviour of these assets.
With a bit of caution and experience, 3D data presentation tools can offer powerful benefits to asset owners and their stakeholders, putting all the pieces of the data puzzle together to quickly and easily reveal the full picture of an asset’s condition and performance over time, supporting decision-making for cost-effective and timely maintenance and upgrades.