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Introduction to ISO 15926


If you are new to the concept of digital interoperability you will be forgiven for thinking that ISO 15926 is a new phenomenon. In fact, the search for digital interoperability stretches back to the mid 1970's, to the day after the U.S. Department of Defense lost a bunch of work because the vendor of its CAD system went out of business.

(This bit of history is especially poignant for your humble author, who at that time was just starting his career as a piping designer. While the DoD was scrambling to find replacement software that could read its old CAD files, the author had just enrolled in Technical School to learn how to draft with a pencil. And a few years later, while the DoD was sponsoring the interoperability standard known as IGES, as we shall see later in this Primer, the author's idea of High Technology was drafting on mylar with (gasp!) plastic lead!)

In this Primer we will look at the need for digital interoperability, some of the things that have been done to address interoperability issues, and some of the things we should be doing instead. We will take a brief historical look at the forebears of ISO 15926, look at the different parts that make up the standard today, and finally, end with some of the things you can do to get started implementing the standard.

Why Do We Need ISO 15926?

The short answer is: "So we can exchange complex plant and project information easier and cheaper."

A slightly longer answer is: "To mitigate the current high costs of rekeying and reformatting information to move it from one proprietary system to another."

For example, take the task of designing, specifying, and purchasing a process instrument for a plant modification. Imagine how many times information has to be rekeyed after the instrument is basically designed, until it is installed and commissioned in the target plant:

  1. After design, enter the information into the project data store, likely an Excel spreadsheet, or a database.
  2. For quotation, a procurement officer assembles several sets of data sheets and sends a set to each bidder.
  3. Each bidder will have a sales engineer read the data sheets and enter some of the data values into proprietary software to make a selection, then compose a quotation and send it to the EPC.
  4. During the design of an instrument the engineer will usually only specify the properties that are necessary for the process conditions. However there are many other properties that must be known, but are dependent on the manufacturer. After the vendor is chosen this information must be entered manually into the 3D engineering design system from the vendor's quotation.
  5. Data sheet turnover to the client will likely be something like an Excel file for each data sheet.
  6. After receiving a truck load of boxes filled with CDs from the EPC, the owner will review each data sheet. Critical data values will be rekeyed into an asset management system. This can take months.

The situation is improving. A few years ago we would have faxed the data sheets to the vendors who would manually add their information and fax them back--now we e-mail editable electronic files. There are also proposals to streamline the final hand over from an EPC so that it the information is already in the form required for the owner's Asset Management System--but the configuration costs, and the lead time required speak to the complexity of the issue.

What we need is a way for each participant's software to be able to communicate complex information to the other participants without having to know in advance things like database structure or format.

ISO 15926 is Like a Babel Fish

If you wanted to listen to Vogon poetry spoken in the original dialect, you might use a Babel Fish.

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The Babel Fish would listen to the Vogon speaking, then rearrange the syntax and translate all the words all on the fly, so to speak.

ISO 15926 acts like a Babel Fish by acting as an interpreter between two otherwise incompatible systems.

ISO 15926 is like a Babel fish

Example: Exchanging Instrument Information Using ISO 15926

Compare the process of specifying and purchasing an instrument above, to doing the same thing with ISO 15926-enabled tools.

The initial data entry is the same:

  1. After design, enter the information into the project data store, likely an Excel spreadsheet or a database.

But thereafter, tools written to support the ISO 15926 standard extract the relevant information automatically:

  1. For quotation, a procurement officer will expose the Request for Quotation on his company's public interface, known as a "façade", then include the URL in an e-mail to the bidders.
  2. By connecting to the EPC's façade, each vendor will pull in the relevant information for each instrument. At this point, the vendor has a choice. He can have a human sales engineer read the information and manually make decisions in the same manner we use today. However, because it is in ISO 15926 format, the instrument information will be rich enough that analysis, decisions, and composition of a preliminary quotation will be able to be done by a computer program. In this case the sales engineer will only have to review the quotation before submitting the bid to the EPC.
  3. After selecting the winning bidder, the engineer will point his 3D engineering design system to the vendor's façade and pull in vendor-supplied information.
  4. Data turnover to the client will simply require exposing the plant information database on the EPC's façade.
  5. The owner will open the link to the engineer's plant information database and import whichever data values are of interest.

You can see that if we use 15926 tools we are removing a great many opportunities for human error. So in addition to being able to transfer information faster, by removing the labor-intensive tasks, the whole process will be more reliable. (And, I might add, the job of the design engineer gets considerably less boring!)

How ISO 15926 Makes Sharing Information Easier

ISO 15926 is a world-wide standard for exchanging complex information about plant objects. If everyone uses a common standard a number of things will be easier:

  • We can exchange information without having to know anything about each other's data storage configuration.
  • Information will be transferred directly from machine to machine without having to be rekeyed.
  • The information will be transferred with high fidelity. We will not need human beings to review the information to make sure nothing is lost or added.

Everyone will still have their own data stores, perhaps in a proprietary format, perhaps not, but will employ a Babel Fish (known as a "façade") when we exchange information with others. This will enable a number of interesting scenarios:

  • A consortium of EPCs will be able to collaborate on designing a plant, each using its chosen plant design system with proprietary work processes. They will be able to share information without having to know anything about each other's data storage format beforehand.
  • During design, vendor's and EPC's software will be able to connect to each other, so passing information back and forth will be much easier.
  • EPCs will be able to take ownership of the rules in Rules Based Engineering. Currently, some 3D design systems support this, but the rules are bound to one system. With ISO 15926, the rules will be portable.
  • Information turnover from EPC to Owner will be a non-issue. Owners will be able to receive the plant data by connecting to the EPC's Babel Fish (i.e., façade) and then store it in the their own format.
  • After information turnover, any of the owner's computer systems will be able to use the information. For instance, a Plant Operations System will be able to access the pieces of information it needed. A Plant Maintenance System will be able to access just the pieces it needs. Each application will take the pieces it needs and ignore the rest.
  • Owners will be able to harmonize maintenance systems between production facilities that have incompatible information storage formats.

Some More Useful Metaphors


The Need for Context

When we exchange plant information with traditional methods we rely on context to retain meaning. Information in ISO 15926 format is rich enough that we no longer need context to retain meaning.


Overview of This Primer

A summary of the sections in this Primer

About PCA
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