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Faster to first water: Virtual commissioning of desalination plants

About the blog

Paul Conroy
I have been working for Siemens for over 35 years and have been active for the majority of this time in various roles in the water industry. I am currently responsible for project development for the water sector in the Middle East region.

Virtual Commissioning of the desalination plants

The market for water desalination is growing steadily – yet at the same time, it is subject to enormous cost pressures. Projects need to be executed as smoothly as possible, and the industry needs to find new ways of engineering and commissioning plants. Digitalization holds the key to this challenge.

As we have become increasingly aware in recent years, ensuring access to safe, clean drinking water is no longer a challenge limited to arid and remote areas. Water preservation and reclamation measures on their own are often insufficient to provide enough water for communities. To meet water demand, reduce the pressure on natural freshwater resources caused by urbanization and growing populations, and boost water supplies by improving water quality, desalination has become a vital technology for ensuring water sustainability. Numerous desalination plants are being built not just in the Middle East and North Africa, but also around the globe, with desalination becoming a significant contributor to the water supply in North and South America as well as Asia. Moreover, the plants themselves have become larger, with at least a dozen megaplants, with those already in operation or planned each producing more than 500,000 cubic meters of water per day. This trend is driven mainly by operating expense considerations, as scaling-up helps desalination plants produce water more cost-efficiently over time.

The business case

The construction of such megaplants requires a substantial initial investment, so their timely start-up is crucial to achieving an optimum return on investment. Consequently, the industry needs to streamline the design, construction, commissioning, and operation of desalination plants – and OEMs, EPC contractors, and operators can achieve this goal by utilizing a digital twin of the plant automation. Such a virtual version of the complete plant automation system can boost efficiency along the entire project life cycle, from design and engineering to operations and servicing. Simulation during the engineering phase enables troubleshooting in early testing. The digital automation twin also enables virtual commissioning of the plant, drastically reducing on-site work and expenses. In some cases, it is even possible to commission a plant remotely, not only significantly reducing travel expenses but also aiding OEMs and EPC contractors in optimally allocating the available expert knowledge to each project. Moreover, the digital automation twin can be used for simulation-based operator training. In this way, operators can not only become familiar with a new plant before the physical equipment is installed, but also use a safe training environment to test, adapt, and optimize work routines as well as prepare for critical situations. As a result, the digital twin of automation significantly contributes to reduced project lead times, and its modeling and simulation help reduce unplanned costs during construction as well as operation.

Creating the digital twin

Simulation tools such as SIMIT software from Siemens provide a real-time simulation environment for comprehensive and convenient checks of the automation program without the need to run it on the physical system. The tools can also perform the virtual commissioning of the automation solution. Using SIMIT, developers can simulate the entire automation of a desalination plant, from the seawater intake to the product water tank, including the high-pressure circuit. Early testing and design verification help eliminate errors in the automation program, significantly reducing the project timeline. This virtual commissioning can also be performed remotely, saving time, travel expenses and other costs. The same digital twin can also be used to create a system to train operators and technicians prior to commissioning the physical plant, ensuring its smooth and safe operation. This same operator training system can be used later to train new staff to run the plant and deal competently with potential critical scenarios.

Proving the point

These benefits are readily available for many of the plants that are currently in the planning stage. In fact, the digital automation twin has already been successfully utilized during the construction of desalination projects, such as the Al-Khobar 1 seawater reverse osmosis plant – one of the biggest desalinization plants in Saudi Arabia, serving 350,000 people. After a record construction time of only one year, the plant was commissioned well within schedule in 2020, despite the special conditions in effect due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This efficiency was made possible through a digital twin created with the SIMIT software, which enabled remote testing and commissioning.

The bigger picture

The digital automation twin is part of the comprehensive Siemens portfolio of software and hardware solutions as well as solutions for energy supply and management. Complemented by end-to-end services in the three key areas of design, operation, and maintenance, our digital solutions help make the commissioning of future desalination plants fast, efficient, and error-free. 

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