The digital revolution is not only bringing changes to the first nuclear power stations that began to be constructed as from the mid-twentieth century, but is also significantly impacting the current new builds across the world and transforming the very profession of engineering. Thanks to BIM and PLM, nuclear engineers now have tools for visualising, tracking and controlling all the components of a project as well as data systems that can reduce project costs and enhance the performance of power stations and their equipment throughout their life cycles. Christophe Fournier, Nuclear Cycle Sales Director and Arthur Margarit, Technical Coordinator at Assystem, review these digital tools that are changing the engineering profession.
When we talk about the nuclear sector, people are often quick to categorise it as an industry of the past. A negative image then –but a false one. Because on the contrary, today’s nuclear industry is agile and constantly-changing, which is precisely why it’s being driven by digital innovation.
Seeing is planning
Digitisation has triggered a paradigm shift in how engineers work on nuclear sites, encompassing every stage of the process –design, build and operation, right up to decommissioning. BIM (Building Information Modelling) – which was first successfully implemented in the non-nuclear infrastructure sector – is now used by engineers to rethink the entire life cycle of nuclear power plants.
“With the use of BIM technology, we are changing paradigm. Instead of the traditional 2D view, BIM provides 3D visualisation and a dynamic model that evolves with the data input into it. This has changed our working methods dramatically! ” explains Christophe.
BIM gives us highly precise spatial integration and a form of modelling that is extremely practical in many ways. For example, we can now access certain areas of a plant without physically having to go there.
” When construction has started, BIM allows for software to be plugged into the model. For example, a company such as Oreka – which has recently become part of EDF – can integrate a tool that calculates the radioactivity of certain equipment so that by moving around the model virtually it can work out the levels to which an operator will be exposed in a given area ” underlines the expert.
BIM therefore offers significant interoperability gains and its benefits continue right through to the decommissioning phase. This is because engineers can use a model of a plant to rapidly come up with the best scenarios in terms of timing and safety.
In practice, BIM gives engineers and operators a digital avatar of the plant they’re working on. This is a real revolution because it provides a precise overview of all of the structural works and the areas that will not be accessible after the installation process is completed. This was not the case when we only had plans to work with.
Of course, though, in a sector as tightly regulated as the nuclear industry, any innovation takes time to embed and needs to prove its worth. However, some engineering companies, with a strong technical experience, can bear the label of Digital Engineering to nuclear players since they are able to use new tools such as BIM and its functionalities, such as 4D planning, technical synthesis, costing or reverse engineering based on the scanning of existing installations.
Better data = Better operation
BIM isn’t the only tool in the digital engineering box. Another one is PLM (Plant Lifecycle Management), which started out in the aeronautic and automotive manufacturing industries and is a digital platform used to manage the lifecycle of nuclear power plants. It is also used during the design phase of nuclear power plants by all of the project’s participants to share data reliably and securely and ensure that everyone has the latest available information.
“In order for PLM to be effective, every player has to be involved because the data it contains is used by all of a project’s stakeholders: designers, suppliers, builders and operators” explains Arthur, Technical coordinator.
In short, while BIM provides a spatial vision of the plant, PLM is used as its data base for storing all types of technical information such as operating temperatures, electric power levels etc. The data is regularly updated and made available to stakeholders in compliance with data confidentiality requirements.
According to Arthur, “engineers who have knowledge and experience of the engineering problems that can arise at a nuclear site know how to use them both in order to find the right solutions”
Alongside these operational solutions, new trends are also emerging to deal with a number of specific requirements, including augmented reality, virtual reality, data analysis and predictive maintenance solutions.
The main thing to remember is that digital tools help to enhance the data related to nuclear power plants. Data that it’s vital to protect. That’s why engineers also have to come up with secure solutions for communicating and sharing data. In order to ensure the confidentiality of data and models, engineers use various security methods such as encryption technology.
Being at the cutting edge of the digital movement is therefore a pre-requisite for all engineers of today and tomorrow, including those in the nuclear industry. Yet at the same time there can be no let-up in the strict focus on rigour and safety that is essential in the sectors in which they work every day.
Embracing technology and sharing experience
All of these developments are changing the way engineers work and interact on a daily basis.
“The real challenge of digital technology for engineers is to know how to embrace new working methods” says Christophe.
“But for digital innovations to be fully taken on board and widely used, they need to be properly understood, practically useful for engineers’ work and, of course, shared among peers. It’s important to support people in this transformation” adds Arthur.
The fact is that digital tools require engineers to be ingenious and to imagine ways of maximising their potential, while never losing sight of the importance of efficiency and safety – the two crucial factors of any engineering mission.
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