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From Stantec ERA: 5 ways 3D modeling is changing the way we design power projects

January 13, 2020

By Arielle Kadoch

Designing substations using 3D models simplifies the engineering process by leveraging software for an integrated design approach

This article first appeared as “5 ways 3D modeling is changing the way we design” in Stantec ERA, Issue 02.

A design revolution is on the horizon in the power industry. Since the 1970s, computer-aided drafting (CAD) of power substations has been almost exclusively used in the utility industry to design physical substations. But now, three-dimensional (3D) modeling is changing everything.

Designing in 3D simplifies the engineering process by using new software that enables teams to develop an integrated design. And 3D designs have the potential to lower costs and increase the quality of substation designs. Here are five ways this new design approach is changing the industry.

1. Improves quality and accuracy of designs

Designing in 3D limits the risk of design errors. This is because 3D design provides automatic calculations and validations for electrical clearances of equipment, quantities of materials, and the modification of equipment arrangements. By modifying equipment arrangements, we can adapt the design requirements to the site and optimize the design. Other modifications, such as replacing types of equipment, are also quickly and easily accomplished by avoiding additional risk of errors.

3D modeling software also allows us to ensure our models are spatially correct. This includes connectivity between components, such as materials, engineering properties, and physical details. All this data is linked to a design database and functional design documents such as one-line diagrams. This provides us with the information required to automate the extraction of drawings, schedules, and cost estimates—leaving little room for error.

2. Improves schedules and turn-around time

It can take a couple of engineers four to six months to design a simple distribution substation in the traditional method. The more complex substation designs become, the more time consuming they are. Skilled designers spend their time at CAD workstations manually making detailed construction drawings one line at a time. After the design is created, it must then be reviewed, and the quality processes must be considered.

Automating substation designs has proven to reduce time significantly. From a 3D model, accurate design drawings, material quantities, and equipment data can be extracted in a fraction of time. 3D models are shown to contractors to help save significant time in the construction process as well. The efficiency and planning benefits are also important, as is the expedited process of acquiring necessary permits.

3. Results in cost savings

Reduced schedule has a direct impact on cost. Automated designs, which generate a bill of materials and eliminates any discrepancy between deliverables, have significantly reduced the cost of projects. Very quick estimates of the cost and feasibility of projects at early stages or for the construction phase have proven to be accurate and beneficial.

Further cost benefits related to changes within a 3D model design are also much less. Designers can identify design issues earlier and avoid additional costs linked to redesigns.

3D designs have the potential to lower costs and increase the quality of substation designs.

4. Great for visualization

3D designs have changed the way projects are presented. 3D software is making walkthroughs for design, construction, commissioning, operations, and maintenance much easier.

The 3D design makes it simpler for clients to visualize dimensions, space, clearances, movement, and access. The design is incredibly realistic and provides details about each element. This results in fewer surprises down the road. During the design phase, it facilitates interdisciplinary coordination by allowing each stakeholder to visualize the interferences and dimensions of the equipment.

The fact that different design options can be plugged into the model to test potential scenarios has helped confirm decisions and identify problems early on. It is easier to change a project during the design stage rather than after construction has begun.

A well-designed 3D model can guide your construction design process from the beginning to the end. It can also be a crucial marketing piece for a firm or a client by allowing clients to see their project and get excited.

5. Reusability of designs by creating design standards

3D modeling is a tool that can make future projects easier to design. Once equipment libraries are created according to client standards or from manufacturer information within a 3D software, new designs can be easily created or modified. Libraries created within a software can often be reused as a placeholder on a different, compatible 3D software. They will need to be adapted for parametric performance and to incorporate intelligence.

For example, once a 3D substation model is created within 3D software, it can be saved as a standardized design and reused on future projects. When a new design is required, the saved relevant template can be used as a quick starting point, and then modified for site-specific requirements. You can then easily create the design deliverables, and as the library content increases in size and component types, the overall modeling time will decrease. The goal is to automate the process of creating both standardized designs for reuse and unique designs based on advanced 3D modeling techniques.

Within the 3D modeling software, unique designs can be created from scratch or designs can be incorporated from other substation models. 3D models can also be used to create 2D drawings.

Of course, a large percentage of existing substations were built over 50 years ago, and detailed drawings of the stations may be outdated, incomplete, or even unavailable. Terrestrial LiDAR, a laser scanning tool, has proven to be an excellent tool for substation expansion projects. It can provide a comprehensive survey of all equipment, structures, foundations bus work, and lines in a substation. In a few hours, technicians can take laser snapshots of the substation and the LiDAR 3D model (data cloud) can serve as a virtual substation on the engineer’s computer. The model can be incorporated in a 3D software and rendered into a complete set of detailed as-built drawings for the substation in only a few weeks.

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Undeniable benefits

The benefits of using 3D models are undeniable. By providing a strong visualization of the project, clients and stakeholders will be more easily convinced of its complexity and significance. 3D creates a more complete picture of a project and serves to benefit both the engineer and the client.

It’s time for the utility industry to rethink substation design strategies. A new generation of power delivery systems design and engineering is coming.

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  • Arielle Kadoch

    An electrical engineer specializing in substations and power plants, Arielle took very quickly to her career in complex projects.

    Contact Arielle
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