Before COVID-19 hit, there seemed to be an ever-increasing challenge for system integrators to get their clients engaged in design reviews, code reviews, panel checkouts, and factory acceptance tests (FATs). Travel costs, travel time, and general time away from the factory were some of the primary reasons for client pushback. When COVID-19 hit, system integrators faced even greater challenges.
Between social distancing and “Stay-At-Home” orders due to COVID-19, nearly all system integrators needed to figure out alternate ways to keep business running, projects on schedule, and clients engaged. We’ve been forced to work in isolation and are communicating more by way of video conferencing, screen sharing, and other collaboration tools. More people are working to accomplish their work while viewing their computer screen and interacting with others remotely.
So, what’s rapidly becoming known as the “new normal” might actually be a blessing in disguise for system integrators and their clients. This allows for both parties to address project events that have traditionally been difficult to schedule because it required everyone to physically be together.
As we all emerge from the initial restrictions of COVID-19, system integrators should consider leveraging the same web conferencing and live content sharing we all seem to be using on a daily basis to be more effective and efficient. The “low hanging fruit” should be getting their clients more actively engaged in remote project reviews and FATs, web conferencing, and live-content sharing.
The client incurs no travel costs, no travel time, and maximizes the use of plant operational resources. Remote video conferencing for reviews and FATs gives the plant the ability to engage with resources from different groups when they are needed for input on the project. The client’s engineering group also experiences the same advantages when the system integrator creates the “virtual environment” to review, discuss, assess, and test the design and performance of an automation system for a manufacturing facility.
This also means that system reviews and FATs can be extended over longer periods of time because travel time or travel costs are cut. For example, instead of cramming a FAT into three long days at a system integrator’s office, spread the FAT over a longer period to get the right resources and the proper amount of time spent on auditing and testing the system. Leveraging a virtual FAT via video conferencing provides the opportunity to leverage time-limited, but essential to the success of the project, resources to be involved without sacrificing their valuable time on travel.
The ability to record the virtual FAT can also provide the benefit of reviewing customer feedback in detail. To complement the recording of the FAT itself, using screen recording software to demonstrate functionality change requests can be very valuable. To save time, punch list responses can be sent as recordings for visual verification of requested changes saving both parties time and expense.
Virtual project-related reviews and FATs can cover documentation, live review of control code, live review of human-machine interfaces, live review of reports and data logging, and live review of process simulation. Web conferencing technology has evolved to the point that real-time viewing of systems is now possible.
We have seen our customers quickly adapt to working with dispersed teams and remote operations, and we feel that this “new normal” may even accelerate adoption of technologies such as augmented reality for remote experts and rapid deployment of video-conferencing technologies inside the plants.
COVID-19 brought us challenges and opportunities to seek more efficient and effective ways of conducting business with our clients. System integrator should reinforce and accelerate their use of collaboration technologies to increase the involvement of their clients in the critical project milestones of reviews and FATs. Championing remote collaboration ultimately provides more value to the overall delivery of projects and positions the integrator community to be an agent of change in the way business is done in the post-COVID-19 world.
Steve J. Malyszko, P.E., is CEO at Malisko Engineering, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). See Malisko Engineering’s profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.