30.08.2016.

How to Make Process Simulation Work For You

Ivana Lukec, Ph.D.
How to Make Process Simulation Work For You

It is a well-known fact that a process simulation is a proven tool and when applied correctly, helps to solve process problems and boosts the quality and efficiency of systems and operations. A successful simulation project is one that delivers useful information or a result at the appropriate time to support a meaningful decision or a task. 

However, process simulation can easily become a complex exercise from many points of view and often is impossible to avoid the numerous pitfalls that any simulation project presents. We have chosen some of the tips that will help you recognize and sidestep the worst of these and allow you to concentrate more on obtaining the best results. 
In the moments of struggle, whether with the simulation software or with the problem itself, don’t forget:

The simulation study done right brings a great power because it is the most effective and certain way to influence the decision-making process and moreover - make the right decision.

From our standpoint, there are a couple of most critical points to make sure the process simulation will work for you:

  • Clearly defined goal: it is important to have a clear focus of what needs to be achieved,
  • Clearly defined questions that the simulation needs to give answers to,
  • Overall picture of the project and the decisions it will influence.

When talking about process simulation, very often the most attention is put on choosing the right process simulation software and calculation tools, while in fact, the choice of the tool is not the most critical decision for employing a process simulation in problem-solving. It very often has more to do with the understanding of the overall problem and dividing it into smaller pieces. Not even the “perfect” tool can give the answers to these questions. Also, if those questions are not understood correctly, the answers could be misinterpreted and take the whole project into a dead end. 

Let’s take a look at some of those imperatives.

Clearly defined goal - defining the objectives

When the decision is made to conduct a simulation project, the first thing to define are the project objectives. This step cannot be highlighted enough because it will prepare and define your path from the step one to the very end of your project and be sure that without understanding the objectives in depth it is impossible to have a successful project. This includes having answers to these questions: Why will you simulate the system and what are your expectations to get out of it? To be more specific, you must determine who your interested parties and superiors are and how do they define the simulation project success and what their expectations are? Which are those questions and decisions the simulation project must give the answers to? What will be the role or purpose of the simulation project?

Understanding the process

Understanding the process you will be describing with the simulation model is a key in helping you define all the goals and objectives. If you are lucky, you will be familiar with the process you are modeling. More typically, you do not know it well enough to accurately model it. Get to know your process and understand it before starting to build the model. While it is not reasonable to expect from a simulation engineer to know every process, an experienced engineer will know which are the important questions  and will be able to understand the answers. Find out typical details about a process to be modelled from the book and process description. If possible, talk through a process with an engineer who knows it well. 

Tackling the wrong problem

If you pick the wrong problem to explore, you may be setting yourself up for failure before you’ve made your first mouse click.
As giving the answers to what plans to be solved, bring the attention also to what you are not intending to solve. When this is clear from the very beginning, chances are less that you will go astray from your simulation path at the later stages of the project and possibly get lost. Summarize from your initial high-level objectives what you are intending to solve and what you are not intending to solve.
Often is a case that simulation study is looking into scope defined too wide and before you even know it, you get overwhelmed by a long list of unnecessary and too much details. It’s difficult to figure out where the boundaries should be when studying a complex system because it often seems as if everything affects the performance parameters driving the decisions. You have to make sure to avoid falling into this trap and make sure to stay on track with the defined problem. 

Timing

A successful simulation project is one that delivers a result at the appropriate time, which makes the time one of the most important variables – so plan well!

Simulation is often a process of discovery. As you model and learn about the system you will find new alternatives to explore and possibly areas of the model requiring more detail. But the best results possible have no value if they are delivered after the decision has been made.

Simulation software selection

For many simulation engineers, the simulation software selection is often considered as a bottleneck, or a most critical point in developing the model. Although the selection of the proper simulation tool is important – it is not more important that all the previous points. There are certain simulation software packages that have the status of the most valuable and they for sure are valuable – but one after the other, all very expensive. This fact tends to be one of the greatest obstacles for not using process simulation more. However, don’t get discouraged by this fact – I assure you there are ways to make a really good simulation work with less expensive or even free simulation tools. Today, there are some very powerful tools available as open source and can be implemented, in worst, case with some restrictions, to solve the majority of process problems.

You can found out more about them at this link.

I assure you that there is no simulation task that cannot be adjusted by definition of objectives and assumptions to meet the requirements of defined goals. So, don’t get discouraged – download one of the mentioned tools and get that simulation going! 

Presenting the results

While doing the analysis, have in mind those goals as mentioned at the beginning pf the article. Your primary goal should be to help make the best decision possible given the time and resources allocated. While you might have other personal goals such as to build credibility or make a profit, it is likely those goals will be met if you concentrate on helping your decision-makers.

Although you need to have data to support your conclusions, do not overwhelm your superiors and decision-makers with too many details. Try to provide information in the context needed: simple, informative and concise. Also, try to be as least technical as you can and see the big picture. That often is hard when you are too involved with your problem, but it is very important – so keep it in mind.

With all of these challenges, it’s a wonder that anyone can possibly perform a successful simulation. :-) But have these tips in mind and you will substantially boost your likelihood of success.

About the author

Ivana is Ph.D. in chemical engineering and a director of a process consulting company “Model”, specialized for process solutions in areas of mathematical modeling and process simulation, process optimization and design, advanced process control and operator training simulators and has spent all her career dedicated to the field of process simulation and modeling with numerous published scientific and professional papers. Contact Ivana!

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