Fusion power may be a long-term solution to the world's energy crisis, requiring the effective creation, capture and maintenance of complex engineering data today to help the scientists of tomorrow
Fusion power could be the fuel of the future, generating limitless amounts of energy with little environmental impact. But fusion requires technology so complex the scientists who began working on it 30 years ago are still laying the groundwork for its continued advancement by future scientists - who are currently just starting school. The world's leading fusion research programme is being carried out at the Culham Science Centre in Oxfordshire, where developers use Dassault Systemes' CATIA V5 and Enovia SmarTeam PLM, supplied and supported by Applied PLM Solutions, to create and maintain the vast amount of engineering data required to ensure that future generations can benefit from the work carried out today.
The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) has been based at Culham since the 70s, when the experimental fusion energy machine was first designed and built as part of the Joint European Torus project (JET) - the flagship of Europe's integrated fusion programme. The same machine still forms the basis of the UKAEA's research today, though of course the design has gradually evolved as knew technologies and techniques become available. "CATIA V5 is used to model the entire device itself, plus the building and facilities which house it," explains Paul Carman, CATIA Manager at Culham. "This is a huge digital mock-up of JET, which consists of over a million parts built. Not only in CATIA V5 but in previous versions of CATIA."
When work first began in the 70s, all designs were hand drawn (the UKAEA has 75,000 drawings to convert to CAD). With the evolution of CAD in the 80s, Carman and his team began using CATIA V2, then V3, then V4 and now V5. "We've certainly never seen a product to beat CATIA," says Carman, "There are other solutions which are good for designing lots of similar components, like in a washing machine. But we've got components 40 metres long that might contain a million parts, as well as miniature diagnostic electrical components. You need something that can handle all of that from one end of the scale to the other. CATIA has always fitted the bill."
Having been enthusiastic CAD users for the past 20 years, one of the biggest challenges facing Carman and his team is the amount of legacy data that exists for every detail of the project. "The thing that sets this project apart from other big OEM users of CATIA is the fact that we have a single large experimental machine which has remained in use, slowly evolving since it was built," explains Carman. "So we never have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean as they do in the automotive or aerospace industries. This means we have a massive amount of legacy data to contend with. Fortunately, one of the big advantages of V5 is that you can work with data from previous versions, so although we plan to convert everything into V5, we can still refer to the drawings we made years ago."
In conjunction with CATIA V5, the UKAEA has also invested in ENOVIA SmarTeam, creating an extended enterprise level PDM system to enable the effective storage, sharing, maintenance and retrieval of engineering data between researchers and different agencies now and into the future. This capability is set to become increasingly important, as the European fusion community prepares itself for the next phase of its research: the construction of a new, international and even more advanced facility at Cadarache in France. The International Tokamak Experimental Reactor (ITER), which will begin being built in about 15 years time, will be the link between today's studies of plasma physics and tomorrow's electricity-producing fusion power stations.
Twice the size of JET, with over 10 million parts to design and construct, involving an increasing number of global participants (the project already includes Russia, China and Korea, as well as the rest of Europe), each with their own collection of domestic research agencies, ITER will be a collaborative engineering project on a truly epic scale. However, since the reactor is not expected to become operational for the next 35 years, the ongoing work of research centres such as Culham, and the effective collection, maintenance and storage of the engineering data produced remains absolutely vital. "Until ITER is built, JET will remain the only machine of its level of sophistication in the world," says Carman, "and it's important that we retain our world-class status ready for the transition to ITER. Effective PLM is a vital part of that process."
In order to establish the most effective PLM system possible for such an important project, Carman and his team called on the expertise of Dassault Systemes' VAR, Applied-PLM. "Finding the right systems provider is critical for a project of this scale and potential longevity," explains Carman. "Any mistakes made in this business tend to live with us for a very long time, so we have to have reliable solutions and integrators we can trust."
In addition to the close support required for an effective PLM implementation, Applied has provided training and consultancy as well as bespoke software solutions to further enhance the integration process.
Shaun Clark Applied MD added. " Providing technical support, and training on this project has given us valuable experience and knowledge of the power generation sector and its PLM needs at the very highest level. With this valuable experience gained in such a complex environment we are confident that applying V5 PLM to others in the power generation industry will produce the kind of benefits that have been experienced by the UKAEA at Culham"
The researchers, scientists and engineers like Carman who work within the fusion community have to be patient. They know that the effort they put in today may not achieve the world-altering results they believe to be possible within their own lifetimes, but they strive none-the-less to make as many advances in fusion technology as they can before handing over to the next generation. With this in mind, the ability to create, record, share and lay down data has become one of the most significant challenges for Carman and his team since the project began.
In the 30 years Carman has been working at Culham, since the centre was first built, he has witnessed unimaginable changes in the technologies used to evolve the fusion project. "But," he says, "there are still some big changes to come. We won't quite see anything as dramatic as the move from 2D to 3D full digital mock-up, but PLM offers amazing potential, and we intend to make the most of it."
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