Why Process Industries Should Adopt Solid Modeling?

Process equipment manufacturers and plant owners still have 2D design approach across many phases. As a design support company, our clients from this specific industry often have this question of what difference it will make for their firm, if they adopt solid modeling instead of their conventional 2D practice. I would like to share my experience to answer this common question prevailing in the process industry.

Solid modeling is beneficial for three major areas:

  1. Developing plant layout
  2. Evaluating the equipment design
  3. Developing manufacturing information

Before touching these points in detail, it is important to know what a solid model should be, especially with the overflowing 3D modeling tools available today. Figure below shows a separator which was modeled in SolidWorks.

3D CAD model of a separator developed in SOLIDWORKS

It may be helpful to visualize the separator with high level of geometric details. But what about the non-geometric details such as material specification, servicing schedules or radiographic inspection?

These details can be only extracted from a model, if it is “smart”. The smart model is one that contains all the engineering information, which is required for fabrication, installation and maintenance of the equipment throughout its useful life. The smart model will contain sketches and features through which solid modeling tools like SolidWorks or Inventor can create components, tables and engineering drawings. The model of the separator shown above consists of this information along with necessary design data according to regulatory standards.

So now that you know what makes a good solid model, let’s look at the benefits of solid modeling in the three major areas mentioned earlier-

Developing Plant Layout

Developing an effective plant layout is critical today and companies are trying to tap this market with better plant layout technologies to replace the industry’s traditional 1980’s technology. Leading companies like SolidWorks and Autodesk have been progressing in this area. While SolidWorks has partnered with companies specializing in plant layout, Autodesk has a dedicated AutoCAD Plant 3D program to address the needs of plant layout in the process industry.

Figure below shows a 3D model of the plant layout developed in SolidWorks. Since the equipment solid models have intelligence to communicate with the overall plant layout, it is possible to connect and route the piping with built-in tools. Moreover, the solid model understands weight, which is essential when developing a supporting steel work and foundations. Process plants also require designing vessels and heat exchangers that comply with the regulatory standards like ASME BPVC. As such, the solid models must also be designed according to the specification.

3D Rendering of a water treatment plant layout developed in SOLIDWORKS

Evaluating the Equipment Design

Evaluating the equipment design using virtual testing tools like FEA  and CFD is helping plant owners as well as manufacturers of process equipment. It helps in analyzing complex geometries for structural strength, which is difficult to perform with conventional calculations. The use of FEA is helpful in cases where the pressure vessel designs are outside the scope of ASME VIII design rules; Or, in cases where you need to use the design by analysis method of ASME VIII Div.2 to study the stress and fatigue life of the vessel. Irrespective of any case, performing FEA will require developing solid model geometry.

Similarly, when performing CFD analysis to calculate thermal effects and pressure drop in heat exchangers, to reduce prototyping trials, you need a solid geometry.

Developing Manufacturing Information

The biggest concern today is to speed up the drafting process. There is always a pressure on drafters to deliver quality drawings and speeding up while maintaining accuracy in drawings is a challenge for the drafting department. Solid model however can eliminate this complexity completely. Using built-in tools in solid modeling tools like SolidWorks or Inventor, solid models can be quickly turned into 2D CAD drawings. Using block and tables can allow users to quickly extract the manufacturing and design information.

Layout of water treatment plant with BOM generated in SOLIDWORKS

Since all the engineering data resides in the model, you can easily generate cut lists, bend schedule or utilize custom tables to call out specific information stored in the model. The data can be rearranged, added or changes easily, allowing drafting departments to establish their own standards, rather than going for a “one size fits all” template.


The shift towards solid modeling is already underway in the process industry, and drafters are moving away from drawings developed in traditional 2D CAD tools to advanced 3D modeling tools. It is important that manufacturers and plant owners realize the potential of 3D in keeping their design, installation and maintenance processes productive.

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