Elios 3 Makes Digital Twins of New Cement Plant to Track Changes Over Time

International cement company Refratechnik Cement asked InspecDrone to use the Elios 3 to make digital twins of the assets at a new cement plant.


Benefits In A Nutshell

3D Live Map

The Elios 3’s LiDAR data allowed inspectors to see a live 3D model while they were flying within the plant’s assets, providing situational awareness that helped ensure they were getting full coverage of each asset.

Survey-Grade Digital Twins

The Elios 3’s LiDAR data allowed inspectors to create highly accurate digital twins of a new cement plant using GeoSLAM Connect, creating a record of the plant’s original condition that could be compared with future digital twins over time to identify the presence of defects.

Speed Of Data Collection

In less than ten minutes of flight time the Elios 3 was able to collect enough LiDAR data to create a digital twin of three cyclones, representing a much faster approach for data collection than walking an area on foot with a handheld scanner.

Introduction

A common challenge plant operators face is tracking changes to their plants over time.

In cement manufacturing, it’s important for plant operators to identify changes to the plant and its assets that could indicate the development of defects so they can fix these issues before they get worse. 

Operators also want to monitor where bakings are formed. Thick bakings on cyclone or calciner walls are completely normal, but it’s important to know how much have formed and where they are to help plan the time and personnel needed for cleaning them.

A major barrier to tracking changes over time is that the plans used to build a plant and the actual plant may be different from each other, which means that the original plans aren’t always the most reliable resource for tracking changes.

3D models rendered in CAD (Computer-Aided Design) are one useful tool for solving this challenge, because they show the entire plant in three dimensional detail. But they suffer from the same issue of potential mismatches between the plans and the reality, and they often don’t provide insights into the layout inside a plant’s assets, like a cyclone or a storage tank.

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The Elios 3's 3D Live Map seen over the shoulder of a pilot at the cement plant

A recent solution for tracking change over time has been for plant administrators to scan their plants with a LiDAR scanner and then use that data to make digital twins of the plant, showing the plant as it actually is in a 3D model.

These 3D models serve as a digital snapshot of the entire plant at a specific moment in time. Future 3D models can be compared to past ones, allowing inspectors and maintenance managers to track changes that have occurred over time. 


What is a digital twin? A digital twin is just another word for a 3D model. For industrial inspections, the phrase digital twin refers to the practice of using 3D models of the same building or asset to track changes over time for maintenance purposes.


The ideal time to make your first digital twin of a plant is right after building it, so you can have a true representation of the entire plant before it begins operating—and changing. 

Given the newness of the technology, there aren’t many instances in which plant administrators have made 3D models of an entire plant when it’s brand new, and hasn’t yet been used for any work. 

As time passes and adoption of this practice grows, it’s likely that we’ll see the creation of an initial digital twin as a common first step before beginning production at new industrial plants, regardless of the industry.

Customer Needs

Refratechnik Cement, a German company that produces and installs refractories for cement manufacturing throughout the world, received the order for the refractory supply for the entire clinker burning line at the  cement plant in Harburg owned by Märker Zement. Märker Cement chose IKN GmbH as the main contractor to replace an existing fifty-year old cement plant in Harburg with a new, state-of-the-art kiln line.

This was a special window in time. After the plant began operations, they would never again have the chance to capture data about its conditions when it was first built. 

Given the unique opportunity, Märker Zement wanted to make digital twins of the new cement plant that could be used to track changes to it over time. These 3D models could provide a baseline for future 3D scans, allowing plant inspectors to compare changes between the original digital twins and those made later to identify defects that may have arisen through everyday use. 

Here is a 3D fly through of a cyclone at the new cement plant made as part of this digital twin project:


One of the primary goals for Refratechnik’s team was to create digital twins of the interior of the refractory lined assets used in the plant for making cement, including its cyclones, calciner, and clinker cooler, which could be used for future inspections. In addition to being useful for inspections, these digital twins could help show people working at the plant where they needed to go in order to do work within an asset.

Collecting LiDAR data to make a digital twin of the plant with a handheld scanner was not an option, since it would take several weeks and the plant was scheduled to open too soon to allow for such a slow undertaking. 

A handheld approach also wouldn’t have allowed for enough data collection inside the cyclones and other assets at the plant to make 3D models of their interiors, since a handheld LiDAR scanner only lets you collect data near a manhole opening, and the gaps in data would leave gaps in the digital twin.

Solution

After considering their options, personnel from Refratechnik contacted drone inspection company InspecDrone to see if they knew of a way to use a drone to make digital twins of the plant and its assets.

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Pilots from InspecDrone fly the Elios 3 at the new cement plant

Simon Kumm, founder of InspecDrone, was a product adviser for Flyability as it worked to make the Elios 3. He identified the Elios 3 as a possible solution for Refratechnik’s needs, since it was made to fly inside confined spaces and came equipped with an Ouster OS0-32 LiDAR sensor. 

By processing data from that sensor with GeoSLAM Connect, Kumm believed he could produce the digital twins that Refratechnik wanted. The Elios 3 also uses LiDAR data and Flyability’s SLAM engine FlyAware to create a 3D Live Map as the drone flies, showing exactly where the drone is located within an asset.

Results

Using the Elios 3, Kumm was able to complete the data collection at the new plant quickly. After collecting the data, he processed it with GeoSLAM Connect, producing highly accurate, survey-grade digital twins of the interior of the plant and its assets.

In total, Kumm used the Elios 3 to make digital twins of the interior of all of the cement plant’s assets, including six cyclones, the clinker cooler , and the 50 meter (164 foot) tall calciner. Kumm also flew the Elios 3 in each part of the plant, creating a model from each flight. Stitched together, these models show the entirety of the inside of the plant in digital twins.

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“The quality of the scans is actually quite amazing. All the people that we’ve shown them to have been stunned by the live 3D model, by the data taken, and by the 3D models processed after the flight.”

- Simon Kumm, InspecDrone

After creating these models, Kumm overlaid them on the original CAD files to check for accuracy and found that the precision between the two was quite high, with only about a centimeter difference between the digital twins and the CAD files.

In addition to the digital twins, the Elios 3 provided high quality visual data for the entire plant and the interior of its assets.

In the future, inspectors will be able to create new digital twins and compare them to the original digital twins to find defects that may have arisen in the intervening time. Once they find defects, they’ll be able to look at photos of the asset taken at the same time the digital twin was made, allowing them to visualize changes that may have occurred.

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Conclusion

Now that the plant operator has made an initial round of digital twins, the next step is to make a new round of them during the plant’s first shutdown, which will happen about six months after production starts. 

The next round of digital twins will provide a crucial resource to inspectors at the plant, allowing them to compare these new 3D models to the original digital twins taken before the plant started production so they can identify any changes that may have occurred.

“I've heard from many plant operators, including power plants and others, that they are actually doing laser scans all the time, before they do any kind of reconstruction or have any changes made. I absolutely see it as a logical step towards better maintenance, because it’s more intelligent maintenance.”

- Simon Kumm, InspecDrone

Although this was the first time Kumm had been hired to make digital twins of an entire plant, he believes they will soon be commonly adopted for maintenance management at a variety of industrial plants, both for launching a brand new facility and for tracking changes at an old one.

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