Just like when you build a house, before you do anything on an automation effort, no matter how great or small the task, you should always start with a solid foundation. In the world of manufacturing automation and information systems that foundation is design.
In recent years, tight budgets, shrinking engineering staff, and short schedules, have made it far too common to skip the design phase and jump full force into development. This is especially true when your team argues that “the process is simple,” “we’ve done this before,” or “we are just copying that one over there.” This is similar to promising “that pile of sand will hold up the house.” As such, you need to do whatever you can to resist this temptation, and embrace the foundational design phase. Don’t simply breeze through the steps. Even a little bit of project design planning will go a long way.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to design. If the change is small, the design should also be small. If the project is large, then the design should be scaled appropriately. The goal of design isn’t simply to check off a box, but to slow down and think about what you are actually trying to accomplish. After all, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit nothing.” The design phase lets you pause and really think about what you are aiming for.
Moreover, the design phase is worthless if you don't accurately take notes about the discussions. Writing down your thoughts is critical. You have ideas in your head about how this project should go, but you may not yet know how to implement it technically. The key aspect of the design is to leverage your or your system integrator partner’s years of experience doing the types of things that you envision so that you can take those concepts and apply the technology footprint of today, mix in the future trends of tomorrow, and apply them both to your needs. From that point, your team can lean in, look at the problem from all angles, assess what needs to happen to make that vision a reality, and document it for you. This comprehensive approach provides the strong basis to know exactly what’s going to happen and gives you the opportunity to review the finished design to confirm that your needs and vision were captured.
When there is an agreed upon design and alignment on the goal and vision, then it is full speed ahead on development because you’ve established a clear picture and have a game plan for overcoming any obstacles that you may encounter. This means that the project doesn’t have to be slowed down to make decisions about those obstacles along the way.
The design document is a valuable tool to have during development. It is referenced often to ensure the project is on the correct path. The design documentation is also the foundation for the system’s test documents as it’s an easy exercise to transform the requirements into Acceptance Test protocols (which is the next critical step in a project – but more on that later).
Whether it’s one page, done in an afternoon, or hundreds of pages done over months, having a comprehensive and thorough design phase at the beginning of any project is the right (and safest) way to create a solid foundation that will pay dividends later as you build your project.
Nic Imfeld is a Principal Engineer at Avanceon, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Avanceon, visit its profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.