Simulated Structures: 3D Modelling and Plant Design

7 November 2010 (Last Updated November 7th, 2010 18:30)

3D modelling technology is rapidly becoming a vital component of mining projects. Chris Lo looks at how infrastructure consultants are utilising this technology to increase efficiency and minimise risk.

Simulated Structures: 3D Modelling and Plant Design

The ever-growing capabilities of 3D modelling and design software are possibly the most potent reminder of the distance the mining industry has come in the last 20 years. With software packages able to perform geospatial analysis and lay out production facilities before first ground is broken, the industry should (and often does) exploit this technology to reduce risk while increasing safety and efficiency.

Since 2004, global infrastructure software provider Bentley has been running the Be Inspired Awards scheme to recognise the achievements of partners in the consultancy and contracting fields who have been using its software on innovative projects around the world, including in the mining sector.

In the wake of Bentley announcing the 2010 award winners on 21 October, we profile some of the innovative mining projects highlighted by the scheme involving virtual tool sets for planning and analysis.

While it should be mentioned that an awards programme that limits entrants to its parent company's partners should be taken with no small grain of salt, this huge scheme (the 2010 finalists were picked from 320 nominations submitted by 249 companies in 45 countries), overseen by independent jurors, is a useful indicator of how the mining industry is using 3D software across the world.

Overcoming challenges with 3D

As the process to take large-scale mining projects from exploration and planning to production can stretch from years into decades, it is incredibly important that the design and planning of vital infrastructure is expertly carried out to minimise costly delays. There is no better demonstration of this than Rio Tinto's QMM ilmenite project in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, which began its 20-year journey to full production with initial assessments in 1989.

"It is incredibly important that the design and planning of vital infrastructure is expertly carried out to minimise costly delays."

By 2009, the operation was up and running, with an annual output of 750,000t of ilmenite (used to produce titanium dioxide – a pigment with applications ranging from plastics and papers to the tennis court markings at the All England Club in Wimbledon) expected.

Hatch Africa was contracted on the project to design and build the mine's infrastructure, including a port, power station and water supply.

The company made its colossal engineering and procurement task easier by making use of 3D plant design software.

Hatch used MicroStation as the core CAD (computer-aided design) platform, with Bentley software like PlantSpace to create virtual piping and instrumentation diagrams, the MicroStation TriForma extension for integrated geometric modelling and ProjectWise Navigator to allow all stakeholders to easily review designs and project data.

Strict organisation of logistical information was particularly important for the Fort Dauphin project because operations were serviced by only a single 16km road, resulting in an unforgiving construction schedule.

As a result, the project managed to overcome a host of complications thrown up by its remote location, frequent inclement weather (cyclones were not uncommon) and environmental concerns, to deliver what has become the largest infrastructure project in Madagascan history. It was also a startlingly safe operation, with Hatch logging 5m work hours without a lost-time injury. The project was announced as the winner in the Be Inspired Awards Innovation in Mining and Metals category for 2009.

PDC Consultants: success in Australia

PDC Consultants, based in Australia with offices in Perth and Brisbane, is one of the world's foremost structural detailing contractors. The company has used its proprietary PDC Modelling Process to bring the benefits of 3D simulation to mining operations across the world, but especially in Australia.

"Strict organisation of logistical information was particularly important for the Fort Dauphin project because operations were serviced by only a single 16km road."

PDC developed its modelling system after analysing the operating requirements of a host of leading 3D modelling software to ensure that it would be compatible across the widest possible range, including Navisworks, Strucad, Tekla Structures and Bentley's ProSteel software. PDC's system has integrated these technologies so that any possible clash involved in their use can be detected.

The company claims that its system can save up to 50% of man hours involved in the design and detailing stage of a project.

This kind of efficiency is carried over into the other features of the system, which include minimising re-work and saving costs during construction due to incredibly detailed 3D modelling in the first instance, the ability for simulated models to accommodate mechanical, electrical and piping requirements, as well as a comprehensive and accessible client review package that allows for detailed examination of all plans.

These principles have led to recognition by the Be Inspired Awards both in 2009 and this year. In 2009, the company was a finalist in the mining and metals group for its work on the Rapid-Growth Project at BHP Billiton's iron ore-producing, crushing and processing hub in Newman, Western Australia. PDC used ProSteel to model complex mechanical items like curved trusses, transfer chutes and liner systems, reducing modelling man hours by 10%-20%, finishing three months ahead of an already ambitious schedule.

This year the company went one better, scooping the top prize in the mining and metals category for the Brockman Syncline No. 4 project in Pilbara, Western Australia. On this $1.5bn iron ore mining facility, PDC provided 3D modelling and shop detailing for more than 4,000t of mechanical and structural steel and connected platework.

"PDC claims that its system can save up to 50% of man hours involved in the design and detailing stage of a project."

Two other companies working on projects in Australia were listed as 2010 finalists. San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation was recognised for its work on a huge expansion of Rio Tinto's Yarwun alumina refinery in Gladstone, Queensland, which will more than double the facility's output from 2m tons to 3.4m tons.

Bechtel used PDS' 3D modelling system for both the Stage 1 and Stage 2 designs, using models and data from the first stage to inform the second. The first shipments from the bolstered refinery are expected before the end of 2010.

Also located near Gladstone is the Wiggins Island Coal Terminal, the engineering contract of which was awarded to joint venture Aurecon Hatch, the other finalist at this year's awards. Wiggins Island will be Queensland's first greenfield coal export facility in 20 years, and Aurecon Hatch's work on the project includes engineering and environmental planning for features like 43km of rail infrastructure, a stockyard and ancillary power, water and road infrastructure. It is hoped that, once fully operational, Wiggins Island will add more than 70mtpa to the state's coal export capacity.

The 3D revolution in the mining infrastructure sector has been well underway for a few years now, and few can deny the benefits that detailed modelling and logistics analysis can have on the vital planning and construction stages of a mining project.

From reducing operational risk and avoidable waste to increasing worker safety and logistics efficiency, sophisticated software is changing the way projects get up and running. With new advances constantly driving 3D modelling software forward, who knows what this virtual landscape will look like in 20 years time?