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How we Store and Exchange Plant Information


  1. Abstract
  2. How we Store and Exchange Plant Information
    1. Plant Information Interoperability Projects
    2. The Initial Graphics Exchange Specification (IGES)
    3. Standard for the Exchange of Product Data (STEP)
    4. PlantSTEP
    5. Process Industries STEP Consortium (PISTEP)
    6. PIEBASE
    7. European Union and ESPRIT
    8. ProcessBase
  3. NEXT


Most plant engineers are familiar with the issue of transferring the contents of a CAD drawing from one authoring system to another. But this is not a new issue at all; it goes back several decades to when we first used computers in engineering. The huge demand for free and easy exchange of plant, and other, information has spawned a number of initiatives.

ISO 15926 builds directly on many of these prior initiatives.

How we Store and Exchange Plant Information

Interoperability of plant information between proprietary systems became an issue almost from the advent of CAD in the 1950s. There are many organizations dedicated to interoperability in just about every industry. Interoperability in the plant industry started in the mid twentieth century U.S. defense department, and expanded to include aerospace, automotive, and plant. Included here are some of the more significant initiatives.

Plant Information Interoperability Projects

  • IGES
  • STEP / ISO 10303
    • PlantSTEP
    • PISTEP
    • PIBASE
  • ProcessBASE

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Fig 6 - History of STEP

The Initial Graphics Exchange Specification (IGES)

Computer based graphics systems started appearing in the mid 1950s in the U.S. Defense industry. By the 1970s the Department of Defense wanted a neutral format that would allow the digital exchange of information between CAD systems. The IGES project was started in 1979 by a group of CAD users and vendors, with the support of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), now known as the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST). In 1980 the NBS published what they called the Digital Representation for Communication of Product . This standard was also published by ASME/ANSI as Y14.26M, which is how many military standards refer to it.

By 1988, any computer aided software vendor who wanted to sell to the DoD had to support reading and writing IGES format files. Since then, IGES has been used in the automotive, shipbuilding and defense industries for small parts up to entire aircraft carriers where the digital drawings have to be used many years after the vendor of the original design software has gone out of business.

By 1994 a competing standard, STEP, was released as an ISO standard. Development of IGES was stopped.


Standard for the Exchange of Product Data (STEP)

The development of STEP started in 1984. The objective was to provide a means of describing product data throughout its lifecycle, independent of any particular computer system.

STEP shares many goals with ISO 15926. STEP's neutral files mean that product data can be archived over many years, and can be shared between different software systems. As well, the standard is implemented within commercial software particular to the engineering discipline, and so will be invisible to the average user.

But STEP differs from ISO 15926 in two important ways:

  • The manner in which templates and descriptions of plant objects are changed: STEP requires a lengthy review before approval of changes, whereas ISO 15926 allows class extensions to be made in as little as five minutes, by trained and approved individuals.
  • The ability to store temporal, or time-related information. Recording changes to a processing plant over its lifetime is outside the scope of STEP.

In 1994 STEP was issued as ISO 10303 Industrial systems and integration - Product data representation and exchange.

STEP's credits include:

  • 1995 - Boeing 777
  • 2000 - GM exchanges parts drawings with suppliers
  • 2004 - Endorsed for U.S. Navy



PlantSTEP was active in the 1990s. It was a consortium of organizations with the purpose of developing and exchanging standards based on ISO 10303. The hope is that these standards will enable concurrent engineering, design, construction, and operation of large facilities by allowing full information sharing among all project contributors. The vision is for all parties to be able to use their own tools and work methods, but to be able to share appropriate information between them seamlessly.

The list of specific benefits mirrors that of all interoperability initiatives:

  • Reuse data
  • Share and exchange data between multiple participants with full integrity and fidelity
  • Lifetime data availability and retrieval at varying levels of detail
  • Owners can receive consistent deliverables from vendors, engineers, and constructors
  • Allows easier plant modification over life of facility


Process Industries STEP Consortium (PISTEP)

PISTEP was created in 1992 to further the awareness of STEP in the process industries. The first phase culminated with major presentations at conferences in London, England in 1993 and 1995. The second phase continued until the end of that decade raising awareness of STEP, by then known as ISO 10303, as well as ISO 15926.

In 2000, PISTEP merged with POSC Caesar, with PISTEP becoming the UK chapter.



Process Industry Executive for Achieving Business Advantage using Standards for data Exchange (PIEBASE) was chartered in the fall of 1996. The intent was to achieve a common strategy and vision for the delivery and use of internationally accepted standards for information sharing and exchange.

PIEBASE is a global umbrella for many process industry consortia active in the development of STEP and other standards for industrial data. Its mandate is the overall coordination of the development and implementation of these standards.


European Union and ESPRIT

One of the main drivers for the European Union, founded in 1993, was to develop a single market for its member states. It has largely achieved this goal through a standardized system of laws, to which all member states adhere, and a common currency, which most have adopted. It is not surprising, then, that the EU is also interested in efforts to standardize the flow of information between its manufacturers. The European Commission saw that the success of Europe itself depended on the ability of its industry to provide competitive goods, and that this success in turn would be helped by standardized methods of exchanging information about these goods. Having had significant participation in STEP already, the EU used the ESPRIT programme to sponsor a significant new part, AP221 Functional data and schematic representation of process plants.

The ESPRIT programme was managed by the Directorate General for Industry of the European Commission. The Directorate General initiated a number of programmes which set the priorities for the EU's R&D activities; ESPRIT was part the fourth in that series. Running from 1994 to 1998, one of ESPRIT's initiatives was to co-fund ProcessBase.



ProcessBase (alternately spelled Process Base, ProcessBASE, and PROCESSBASE, depending on the source) was co-funded by ESPRIT and a consortium of mostly EU enterprises with two objectives:

  • To promote the use of new technologies in the area of product data, including STEP, and to facilitate data transfer among actors in the process industry.
  • To ensure that Application Protocol AP221, developed by ProcessBase, would interoperate with the Spatial Configuration for Process Plants to be developed by the US PlantSTEP initiative.

In this the programme was largely successful. ProcessBase developed a neutral format based on ISO 10303 and demonstrated the exchange of process plant functional data and schematics between CAD systems, analysis systems, and process plant databases in a pilot project. They contributed the application protocol AP221 to the development of STEP, which helped to solve problems of size and harmonization that plagued previous application protocols.


  • Framatome, France (Coordinator)
  • AKZO Nobel Engineering, NL
  • Bertin et CIE, France
  • Caesar Systems Limited, UK
  • DRAL, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, UK
  • Initec, Spain



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