Futureproof plant strategies: a how-to guide

Aveva Software Australia Pty Ltd

By Amish Sabharwal*
Thursday, 15 February, 2024

Futureproof plant strategies: a how-to guide

Industrial organisations face a major challenge in delivering future facilities that are both economically viable and environmentally sustainable.

In the unrelenting drive to operate more efficiently and sustainably, demand is increasing for large-scale capital projects. This provides huge opportunities for industrial organisations, but also requires companies to find innovative solutions to economic and environmental challenges. The increasing pressure from shrinking margins, global competition, and scrutiny of green certifications requires more than just an incremental change in how a capital project is delivered. The industry needs an end-to-end transformation that improves performance at every stage of the value chain.

Digital twin technologies are providing the means for this shift — connecting people, data, processes and technology, while making the most of cloud collaboration. This new way of working provides unrivalled insight and control, enabling organisations to optimise performance across capital projects and operations. Teams work more effectively and efficiently, with fewer risks and less wasted time and resources. With these new advanced capabilities, industries can design and operate facilities that are more efficient and greener than ever before. While the benefits of digital transformation are well recognised, successfully delivering smarter, connected facilities can be challenging. Below are some practical steps owner-operators, and their engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) partners, can take to create the digital plant of the future.

Delivering efficient, sustainable plants for the future

A recent survey1 of more than 850 industrial digitalisation experts spanning sectors including power, chemicals, energy and manufacturing found that 85% of industrial businesses expect their spending on digital transformation to increase in the next 12 months. The power industry expects to make the largest levels of new investment, with 42% of those surveyed planning a significant upswing in their technology spend.

As industries step into the future, digital twin technology is on track to achieve record efficiency and promote net-zero emissions. A cloud-enabled digital twin connects all capital project stakeholders around a single hub of end-to-end data, processes and tools that span conceptual design through to handover. It provides the data visualisation, models and analytics, training and maintenance insights required to drive performance transformation in a way that optimises asset operations.

Digital twins are the key to the plant of the future

It is difficult to imagine a successful plant of the future without an intelligent digital twin supporting the plant’s full lifecycle.

A digital twin is composed of a series of interwoven digital threads that link:

  • content: including data sources, models and analytics, and knowledge;
  • context: about individual equipment, sites, processes, the type of enterprise;
  • time: including data from the past, current operations, and extensions into the future;
  • perspective: of different teams using the data for engineering, operations, or optimisation and maintenance.

Digital twin technologies can incorporate the data available at a point in time at any phase, focusing on one or more use cases, and grow over time as it proves valuable.

Figure 1: Digital twins and the plant of the future.

Figure 1: Digital twins and the plant of the future. For a larger image click here.

Three steps to engineering the plant of the future

While most industrial companies agree that the plant of the future will be smart and connected, getting the digitalisation strategy right is more challenging. Relying on a ‘lifted and shifted’ on-premises strategy or creating in-house solutions that don’t integrate smoothly won’t deliver transformation. At best these approaches will cause frustration for stakeholders, and at worst, they will lead to spiralling costs without improved performance.

Digital twin capabilities can be maximised by prioritising connectivity at every level and at every phase of a capital project — from pre-front-end engineering design (pre-FEED) through to operations.

The process can be broken down into three steps.

Step 1: Define key project and plant KPIs

As Dr Stephen Covey said in his bestselling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Begin with the end in mind.”

This means you should carefully define goals and objectives for this new plant early in the planning process. You want to design your engineering and execution processes to target those goals at each step so you can deliver the most efficient or sustainable operating plant possible, while delivering the project safely, on time and on budget.

  • Project KPIs: To measure success and define relevant KPIs for the engineering and build phases of the project, evaluate your managed cost, the construction schedule, potential safety incidents and your estimated carbon impact.
  • Plant KPIs: When thinking about how the plant will eventually operate, consider your overall efficiency goals, how you can make operations more sustainable, and what sort of visibility you need into real-time operations. Also look at how teams will collaborate and share information, how to support agile decision-making, and the insights you will depend on from your digital twin.
Step 2: Structure the project teams

Define your project plan, identifying how to structure the project team and ensure modern data sharing practices. Creating a technology infrastructure that supports this new way of working is typically deployed as a collaborative, cloud-based environment that all stakeholders can access.

Traditionally, contracts indicated that data would be handed over to the owner operator at specific construction milestones, often in different formats. The real-time insights and iterative process that are the core of digital transformation require a regular flow of updates and data. This is a new way of thinking and demands consideration and alignment at the earliest stages of the project. McKinsey describes this as “collaborative construction”.

Look at which teams will be involved, including engineering, construction, fabricators, joint venture partners, etc. Ensure that all vendors, partners, and employees are aligned with how you plan to engineer, execute and operate the finished plant. Verify that individual stakeholder KPIs and processes are designed to support the overall project-wide goals outlined at the beginning of the process.

Figure 2: Three steps to implementing a plant of the future.

Figure 2: Three steps to implementing a plant of the future.

Step 3: Implement digital transformation and connected workflows

Despite massive growth in remote operations during the recent COVID-19 pandemic, most engineering and operations technology resides on premises. Digitalisation is a step in the right direction, but make sure you aren’t just doing a lift-and-shift of data from one series of siloed on-premises systems to another.

The cloud is where the power of data is truly unlocked by connecting people, processes and tools augmented by machine learning and AI to deliver real-time insights that don’t exist in individual datasets. The cloud is where the performance transformation required to deliver efficient and green plants of the future takes place.

Creating a cloud-based digital engineering data warehouse (EDW) that includes all process and 1D, 2D and 3D structural data is the foundation of an industrial digital twin. It provides the necessary context to enable insights and 3D visualisation of any process, plant or enterprise.

Assess design alternatives through simulation

Today’s investment decisions and design choices are being made in an environment of elevated uncertainty. From the earliest stages of concept development, engineers need to rely on process simulation to understand the potential behaviour of the plant across any range of future scenarios. Simulation creates a consistent, rigorous framework to explore the interplay between feasibility, reliability and sustainability.

Process simulation provides insight and knowledge during the early phases of a project lifecycle. It eliminates errors and mistakes in the design before you have to commit capital and when the cost to correct an error is the lowest.

The Construction Industry Institute (CII) report found that a project with a high FEED maturity and accuracy outperformed projects with low FEED maturity and accuracy by 24% in terms of cost growth and 12% in terms of change order performance.2

Connect engineering processes in the cloud

Connected technologies create the framework and insights needed to align people, processes and data. The integration of process and 1D, 2D and 3D engineering on a single platform draws efficiencies from conceptual planning through project completion. Teams can submit their projects into detailed design with confidence that the FEED designs are validated and that they can revalidate at any time as the design matures.

When multi-discipline engineers contribute and share data in real time using integrated, on-premises tools or by leveraging cloud collaboration, they achieve new levels of efficiency while reducing costly errors and rework.

Simultaneously aggregated project data contributes to the creation of an asset digital twin which is easily transferred to the cloud to enable connected workers and ramp optimisation programs quickly.

When collaborating on a single platform, project teams can reduce engineering efforts by 30%, cut project costs by 5%, and also improve collaboration and change management downstream in the procurement and construction phases of the project.

Execute digitally

Just like engineers, project execution teams require agile working practices — but later in the project when the stakes are higher.

Capturing an error in engineering might take a few hours of time to identify and rectify the issue across the other disciplines, but if you have already ordered equipment and mobilised construction teams, the downstream costs, carbon impacts and time wasted can spiral quickly.

Managing change is critical, but it is possible to avoid problems. This is why project teams need to change how they work, and leave disconnected, manual and client-built procurement and construction solutions in the past.

Modern 3D model integration, built-in analytics and construction work package (CWP) visualisation allow engineering, procurement and construction teams to execute according to advanced work packaging and integrated project delivery best practices to speed up project cycles and minimise costs, while reducing the overall risk of inevitable late project changes.

Integrated, digital workflows in the project execution phase can enable savings of 8–10% of the total installed cost of a project.

Leverage the digital twin throughout

As data is created, it not only progresses, but also informs the capital project as it becomes the earliest stage of the digital twin. Project updates are no longer cumbersome to create and delivered at a point in time, but available in real time to all necessary stakeholders. Execution teams can assess and visualise engineering progression to plan material and equipment to arrive on time, and schedule construction teams accordingly.

The purpose of a capital project is to produce an operating asset. So too for a digital twin. The need to connect people, process and the plant does not end with the start of regular operations. In the plant of the future, the knowledge and effort that create the digital twin during the capital project become the foundation for the next level of value creation, including process optimisation, predictive maintenance and workforce development.


Industrial organisations face a major challenge in delivering future facilities that are both economically viable and environmentally sustainable. Unified digital twin technologies hosted in the cloud are becoming a proven route to achieving these imperatives — providing the insights and connectivity required for efficient, productive and sustainable industrial plants of the future.

By conceiving of projects with a modern digital twin at the very beginning, you can ensure the entire project incorporates the latest digital technologies to bring the plant of the future to life.

1. AVEVA 2021, Approaching the Age of Performance: Insights from industries in evolution.
2. El Asmar M, Gibson GE et al 2018, The Maturity and Accuracy of Front-End Engineering Design (FEED) and Its Impact on Project Performance, Construction Industry Institute.

*Amish Sabharwal is the Executive Vice President for AVEVA’s Engineering Business Unit, which is responsible for delivering simulation, engineering, design, project execution, operator training and project management software to the Global Industrial Market. Amish has 25 years of experience globally within the energy, chemicals and power industries.

Top image credit: iStock.com/Traitov

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