The view from the coldbox platform is quite a sight – and one that could easily leave you feeling light headed. After all, the platform is 75 metres above ground. Inside the box, gases are broken down to their constituent parts at temperatures below minus 160 degrees Celsius. Normally, it would take at least ten minutes to climb back down to ground level. In this instance, however, the user can just push a button on a hand-held controller and safely jump back down to the ground in the blink of an eye.
“Some of our colleagues even felt a bit dizzy up there,” reports Linde engineer Dr Mathias Mostertz, Senior Business Development Manager for Digitalisation. Dr Mostertz is part of the Group’s Digital Base Camp department based in Pullach, Germany. He has been a key driving force behind development of this new virtual reality application that takes users on a simulated journey to the region of Amur in Eastern Russia. Over the coming years, Linde Engineering will be building several units in Amur for what will be one of the largest gas processing plants in the world. However, it took Mostertz and his colleagues just three months to build one of these units in the virtual world. The plant will be used to extract ethane, liquid gas components and nitrogen. A powerful computer and a virtual reality 3D headset create an almost perfect replica of the real plant. The only thing that’s missing is the howling wind that would otherwise be blowing around you at the top of the coldbox.
Training operators as early as the construction phase
Virtual reality (VR) refers to computer technologies that simulate a real environment for users. Until now, it has been mainly associated with video gaming. However, Linde has now adapted this technology for the field of industrial-scale plant engineering. “We can use this application early on in the project lifecycle to train operators who will later be working in the real facility,” explains Mostertz. The technology can also be used to immediately visualise design changes during a plant’s planning phase and show these modifications to the customer. The virtual application is being unveiled to the public for the first time at the Gastech trade show.
The inner workings of a coldbox
Users can put on a VR headset and use a hand-held controller to explore all of the module’s platforms and study its valves and compressors from every angle. They can even step inside process components such as heat exchangers and coldboxes – something that would not be possible in real life. The buttons on the controller can be used to take small steps forward or even giant leaps through the virtual world, enabling users to jump on and off coldboxes, for example. In a different mode, users can shrink the entire plant to the size of a human being. They can then view the plant from the outside or walk into it, bend down and look into all levels.
Users can also navigate by taking actual steps and changing direction in the real world. These actions are translated in real time into identical movements in the virtual world. However, users have to move within a clearly defined area inside a room. The system also comes with an in-built safety mechanism because the VR headset disconnects users from their actual surroundings. If a user gets close to the edge of this designated area, a blue fence flashes up on the VR headset, warning users not to go any further in that direction. They can, however, continue to virtually click their way through the plant using the buttons on the controller.
“The VR simulation is based on the extremely detailed CAD files that we created while designing the module,” explains Julien Brunel, Head of Digitalisation at Linde Engineering. The company also wants its VR technology to be mobile. The hardware (primarily the VR headset and a very powerful laptop) fits into a specially modified hard shell case that Linde specialists will be able to take to customers in future. Any changes to the design of a plant can be immediately shown and verified in 3D using this technology.
Further innovations on the horizon
Following on from the virtual reality application, the Digital Base Camp is now working on new innovations. This department focuses on using data intelligently to drive digitalisation across the company. It aims, for instance, to further improve Group-internal processes and develop new services for customers. Predictive maintenance is a prime example here. In future, Linde wants to be able to predict when a component is likely to fail. To do this, it uses algorithms to evaluate data that sensors have been gathering in industrial plants for many years now. Past service incidents can be used to calculate the probability of future events. Technicians could then replace individual components in advance and minimise downtime for the entire plant. “Digitalisation will change our business and the way we work in the field of plant engineering for good,” explains Dr Christian Bruch, member of the Linde AG Executive Board responsible for the Engineering Division and for the Technology & Innovation Group function . “By harnessing our data, we can offer our customers completely new services and opportunities.”
“We have to use our data creatively”
Four questions for Philipp Karmires, Head of Digitalisation at The Linde Group. The former Google manager and his team developed the virtual reality application at Linde’s new Digital Base Camp in Pullach.
What role does virtual reality (VR) play in The Linde Group’s digital strategy?
Virtual reality is one of many applications that can be rapidly developed and delivered when we implement our strategy systematically. It took us just three months to create the solution we are showcasing now at Gastech. It’s important for us to show that virtual reality isn’t just a video game for engineers but that it can add real value to our customers.
What benefits does VR bring to your customers?
It enables them to train their future operators before a plant has even been finished. The Amur gas processing plant featured in our VR application at Gastech is still under construction. But we can already take a detailed look at every valve, every compressor and every pipe – from any angle. Users can squeeze themselves into narrow spaces to find out where they will have to duck in future so they won’t hit their heads. Taking a virtual trip through the plant feels so real that employees will be able to intuitively navigate their way around the real facility later. Some VR testers even felt a bit dizzy looking down from the top of the coldbox.
Do you also want to use virtual reality to support sales?
It certainly is a possibility. We’ve made the VR application so mobile that it now fits into a case our employees can take on the road. We call it our “plant in a box”. They could then use this technology when visiting customers to assemble standard plants in the virtual world using premanufactured modules.
What is at the heart of your digitalisation strategy?
Everything we do or consider here is centred on one question: How can we use the data that Linde already has to help our customers and create new business opportunities? We are lucky at Linde because we have a vast treasure of digital assets. For example, we have detailed CAD files for every project, and we were able to use these to develop the virtual reality application. In addition to this, many thousands of sensors in our plants across the globe have been gathering extremely detailed data on the status of components for many years now. In future, we want to harness this information to develop predictive maintenance capabilities. In other words, we want to make forecasts that accurately predict when a component is likely to fail. We have the data and we can access the computing power – we just have to use this data creatively.