Big Data Analytics / Smart Sensors

Engineering the future: Disruptive technologies on the horizon

Sheila Kennedy says explore innovative engineering tools that can help advance plant digitalization.

By Sheila Kennedy

Engineering technology in the industrial space is experiencing a sea change of innovation. New approaches to how assets and systems are engineered are improving reliability, maintainability, performance, and security. Digital twin simulations, 3D modeling, model-based prognostics, and cyber-informed engineering are among the intriguing options.

Engineering digitalization

Engineering simulation connects actual operational data from a machine or system to a virtual model or “digital twin” of the machine or system. Physics-based simulation from ANSYS used with analytics platforms such as GE Predix and PTC ThingWorx allows virtual exploration of options before whatever is decided upon as the best solution is applied to the physical asset.

“Until recently, simulation was used primarily for design, verification, and optimization of products,” says Sudhir Sharma, high-tech industry director at ANSYS. Now, companies are deploying their simulation models along with the physical asset to improve their operations – reducing unplanned downtime, improving labor utilization, and increasing throughput.”

For Siemens, digitalization means taking the world’s billions of intelligent devices, machines, and data to create a bridge between the virtual and real worlds and turning all of that into business value, says Chintan Patel, digital enterprise business development manager at Siemens Digital Factory Division, U.S.

“The result of this integration is a perfect digital copy of the value chain,” Patel says. This digital twin enables companies to perform simulation, testing, and optimization in a virtual world. In so doing, they can visualize how assorted elements along the value chain interact and resolve any problems that are spotted before committing any resources to a specific course of action in the real world.

Equipment and facility engineering

Terms like “conceptioneering” and “inspectioneering” have been used to convey the capabilities of ContextCapture, an iPhone app from Bentley Systems. ContextCapture is used by the company’s AssetWise software to create 3D models of the as-operated state from photographs. The reality modeling provides context for design, construction, and operations decisions as well as reliability and maintenance.

“With an accurate digital representation of an asset that is also geo-referenced, it tracks asset engineering modifications as well as condition degradation, which is critical when you need to take action in a timely manner,” says David Armstrong, reliability and integrity management practices lead at Bentley Systems.

QA Graphics creates 3D graphic representations from items such as photos, one-dimensional drawings, or schematic designs. “Custom 3D graphics that accurately depict water systems, air systems, plant floor equipment, and floor plans are becoming the next trend,” says Dan McCarty, president and owner of QA Graphics. For example, to allow for easy overall navigation and zoning, QA Graphics’ designers can create 3D custom floor plans.

In addition to creative services, QA Graphics’ Symbol Library V5 allows companies to build their own graphics. “User interface graphics are useful for the design, engineering, and maintenance of any facility work station,” McCarty adds.

Eruditio has embraced 3D models as a part of its educational offering, using what it calls Augmented Reliability. Equipment components and faults can be visualized in front of the student. “It was a game-changer for teaching engineers and technicians about machinery dynamics,” says Shon Isenhour, partner at Eruditio.

“We have found by incorporating cutting-edge tools like augmented reality with core fundamentals like root-cause analysis and reliability-centered maintenance, we can create a memorable educational experience while driving application of the learning,” says Isenhour.

System engineering

Model-based prognostics look at current and future system behavior to better understand the progression of faulty behavior and ultimately engineer better systems.

Implementation of a fault diagnostics and prognostics framework plays an important role in the health monitoring and safety of industrial systems, says Chetan Kulkarni, senior staff researcher at NASA Ames Research Center. “It helps the maintenance team to make downtime decisions based on prognostic estimates of when a component or system is going to fail,” Kulkarni says. “The diagnostics and prognostics results can be fed as inputs to existing model-based systems, which can then make decisions.”


Cyber-informed engineering was urged in the keynote address at ARC Industry Forum Orlando 2017. Marty Edwards, formerly director of the Industrial Control Systems, Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, suggested doing a proper risk assessment to identify the “crown jewels” and then protect them.

“We do need to take care of those most basic life-safety and equipment-protection functions,” he said. “Find that most critical of functions, and then take it offline.” Cyber-security is still needed for the 99.9% of control functions remaining in the enabled, connected, digital architecture, he said.