3-D scanners, photo stitching help construct 3-D facility models
July 24, 2012
The challenge of retrofitting a factory is that most have only blueprints or 2D AutoCAD files at best, which makes it difficult to take a strategic and deliberate approach to sustainability (hard to really assess how much water and energy is consumed, etc.) New technology allows users to create 3D models of their factories and explore opportunities for improvement in the design phase.
Many manufacturers have found that building sustainability into their processes and factories is a way to gain an economic edge.
Facility managers of newly constructed manufacturing facilities have the advantage of being able to access sustainable design elements to make their operations more environmentally sound. In fact, sustainability often is a key point in the design of these facilities. Those design elements are evident on the building exterior, such as solar panels on the rooftops or in the parking lots, and on the interior, such as energy meters installed on the manufacturing process machinery.
Particularly helpful is that the modern infrastructures usually are accompanied by 3-D software of their design and architecture.
However, more often than not, existing plants are older facilities dripping with inefficiencies begging to be retrofitted. These factory buildings were erected at a time when fossil fuels were plentiful and tools for greening factories were not.
The main difference between new facilities and older ones is that manual effort is not needed to make changes to new facilities. Perhaps the reason is that sustainability was designed in from the start—and not as a new appendage to an old process.
So, is the solution to greening existing facilities to take a wrecking ball to them and start from scratch? Not necessarily.
Actually, older facilities are great candidates for "green makeovers" via digital design. A digital model allows for smart experimentation with real data—the key to attaining green manufacturing goals.
Digital models, when used with building information modeling (BIM) and digital prototyping (DP) software, help to provide an end-to-end view of the manufacturing process with 3-D, intelligent models at every stage. However, some factory owners don't have digital models of their factories. At best they have blueprints or 2-D CAD files. This lack of 3-D digital models limits the ability to take a strategic and deliberate approach to sustainability. Need to simulate how much water or energy your operations consume? Good luck figuring that out with just a blueprint.
Fortunately, there are ways around this problem: New technology is available to help manufacturers quickly and easily digitize their factory environments.
3-D Scanners. When no blueprints or drawings are available, factory owners can use 3-D scanners to "scan" their factory environment and collect millions of data points that can be used to construct digital, 3-D models.
Photo Stitching. Alternatively, factory owners can take digital photos of their facility, and then use special software to create 3-D models from the images—a process known as photo stitching.
New full-featured factory layout software packages allow manufacturers to create 3-D models of their existing factories so that they can explore opportunities for improvement without taking machines offline. Crucially, factory layout software can import digital models created via the 3-D scanners or photo stitching, allowing manufacturers to optimize older factories as easily as brand-new ones.
In either option, facility layout engineers can capture the existing factory infrastructure without extensive amounts of manual measuring made by stooping over a tape measure.
Once a new or existing digital factory environment has been created, building managers can undertake several steps to "green" operations.
• Determine best energy sources. For existing plants where a manufacturer has little influence over the local fuel mix from its utility, a strategy is to explore on-site energy potential from available sources such as solar or wind. Where a factory is geographically sited determines which kinds of local energy sources it can obtain. A factory in a desert, for example, has different local energy sources to draw upon than a factory sited in a colder, forested climate. Software can be useful in determining the optimal energy mix, based on how much energy can be saved, based on calculated comparisons.
By looking at weather data and sunlight angles at various times of the year at a site, robust software packages can help factor in the potential for renewable energy and daylighting contributions.
For example: How does the greenhouse gas profile of the facility change if on-site renewable energy is implemented? How much of the roof can be devoted to a solar array without compromising rooftop space available for sufficient daylighting?
• Improve the building envelope. The walls, floor, and roof that envelop the manufacturing space are often ripe for green design improvements. One of the most popular retrofits for facilities is daylighting. Daylighting can reduce the amount of electricity the daytime shift needs to operate, and it provides better working conditions to boot. It has been shown that daylighting improves people's moods and health, in turn decreasing expensive absenteeism. Better lighting also increases the safety of the workers on the line.
By using weather data and simulation, architects and engineers can employ software tools to measure daylighting possibilities and tweak solar shading, glazing, and other building envelope features to maximize natural light in the interior.
• Conduct a materials throughput analysis. A lot of energy flows throughout a factory. Manufacturers must ask themselves if they are making the most of it. Digital models—even 2-D CAD layouts—can be used to do throughput analysis. Changing the sequencing and layout of production lines can result in a reduction in the amount of energy needed to move materials and parts from place to place.
• Optimize HVAC systems. In many factories, HVAC systems are working harder than necessary to cool or heat the air. Updating the building envelope—such as adding window tinting or insulation—can help control internal temperatures and reduce the load on the HVAC system. Use of software tools like rapid energy modeling can help building operators set a baseline of how much energy will be required to heat or cool a building—and then isolate where the possible efficiencies lie.
• Create a feedback loop for continuous improvement. Product designers often lack visibility into the environmental impacts of the design decisions they make. Educating the product design team about processes that consume less energy or water or generate less material waste is a great way to reduce the environmental impacts of future products.
By using tools that measure the impacts of individual materials used to make a product, manufacturers can ensure that weight, transportation costs, and water use are minimized, without compromising the strength and durability they desire in the finished product.
• Improve machine performance via predictive maintenance. Much like a knife that gets dull and can't cut through a tomato easily, the performance of cutting tools used in manufacturing facilities deteriorates over time. Then they require more resources—such as power or industrial lubricants, which may have a toxic environmental profile—to perform their given task. This performance loss can be minimized via predictive maintenance.
Charting and trending a machine's normal performance with sensors and analytical software tools against actual throughput levels and swapping out the cutting tools proactively and at regular intervals can keep machines in good operational health. A side energy efficiency benefit can occur because idle time is scheduled and minimized.
These are just a few of the ways that factories can green their operations using sustainability software. In fact, few of these improvements are possible without access to software tools that can analyze manufacturing process layout and efficiency.
Several companies have applied 3-D factory design technology to help implement some of the measures discussed previously. For example:
• An automotive manufacturer was considering whether to install daylighting or on-site solar arrays on the roof of its facility. The sustainability software it used indicated that adding a solar energy system would be financially and environmentally beneficial. It opted to install skylights on the roof, as well as solar arrays/carports that shelter employees' cars in the parking lot while generating electricity. This was a win-win because the solar arrays produce electricity for the factory and increase employee satisfaction because workers returned home in cooler cars at the end of their shifts.
• One building product manufacturer uses a simple bulletin board on the shop floor to create a feedback loop between the factory workers and the design team. The workers comment on ideas for assembling products with fewer tools and fewer steps.
• A packaging manufacturer meters all of its industrial machines and trends their performance. It is able to see, in real time, which machines go idle more often than others and are able to schedule predictive maintenance.
Clearly, greening a factory is not an insurmountable hurdle or an onerous task. On the contrary, even a small, simple step—such as creating a better feedback loop with the product design team—can yield significant operational results.
With the software tools currently available, manufacturers can achieve everything from throughput analysis to building envelope improvements with surprisingly little effort.