An expert manifesto for better pipe fabrication

ComputersThe computer is the new tool of the piping fabricator with the technology now existing to share 3D models. (Image source: Rowan University Publications/Flickr)How can we get better (faster and cheaper with fewer errors) at piping fabrication? What would the elements of an improved workflow be?

Let’s start by understanding the classic workflow, in which an integrated 3D computer model of a new process plant – refinery, offshore platform, chemical plant, power station or pharmaceuticals facility – is built by a team of expert designers. The 3D model ensures clash-free design and an accurate material take-off so that the physical components can be ordered in the right quantities at the right time.

Usually, the pipe and fittings that are required are welded together into small sections – known as spools – which are then shipped to the construction site for installation. Sometimes an entire section of the plant is built in the relative comfort and safety of a workshop and the module is then transported and installed on site. The team who built the computer model is not the same as the team (usually more than one) who fabricate the pipe spools. In turn, another team constructs the final plant. How do they communicate?

Typically, drawings generated from the 3D model are the medium – they express the requirements that the engineering team put on the fabricators (in fact, the hard copy piping isometric is usually the contractual document). Once the drawings are issued, the 3D model continues to evolve.

If the piping fabricators works with hard copy (including PDF documents), any data they need must be extracted by reading the drawing and transferring information to a spreadsheet, and if any changes to the drawing are necessary – for example to show the position of a field weld which splits the pipe into spools – the drawing must be recreated. This is slow, error prone, and inevitably expensive.

Why isn’t the 3D model shared with the fabricators? In fact, this can be done in an integrated project such as building a ship where engineering, fabrication, and construction are all departments within a single organisation. But this is not so easy where the piping fabricator must work with multiple different customers, who use different 3D modeling systems and are often unwilling to share their important IP with third parties.

Some years ago, Alias, the company behind the Isogen software for automated piping isometric drawing generation, pioneered the use of the Isogen data file (IDF) and the more modern format the Piping Component File (or PCF) for transferring data from engineering to fabrication. Alias is now part of Hexagon PPM, and our Spoolgen software has been used for many years to support a data-centered workflow.

The engineering company uses Isogen to create the piping isometric drawings and then sends the drawings together with the Isogen data from which the drawing was created to the fabricator, who can use Spoolgen to quickly create the drawings and to extract reports to drive the internal processes. It’s a tangible example of a practical process where complex engineering data can be transferred between parties involved in a project without the need for interconnected IT systems.

Working with companies around the world has led us to an understanding of the key principles if we are to build on this foundation and create a truly integrated solution which exploits the new opportunities presented by better computer infrastructure.

This is an abridged version of an article on the Hexagon PPM website. To read the entire article, log on to

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