Three Scale-Up Pitfalls for Early-Stage Companies

A manufacturing scale-up project varies greatly depending on the development phase your company occupies. It's essential for early-stage companies to understand common issues that arise when first involving a system integrator and how to solve them.

Gary Powell, Vice President of Life Sciences, E Technologies Group.
Gary Powell, Vice President of Life Sciences, E Technologies Group.

Being involved in developing a manufacturing scale-up project, especially for an early-stage company, can be similar to being in the “fog of war”—when you’re in the middle of a battle, things are coming out of nowhere and 95% of the plans you’ve made are going out of the window. The landscape is constantly changing and you can’t see a way out of it. We’ve navigated many of these manufacturing scale-up projects with companies and have seen some common scale-up pitfalls. 

These are our top three:

Pitfall No. 1: Believing that you can just hand the project off to someone else
It can be tempting to believe that, once you’ve brought an automation integrator onto the project team, that you’ve just solved a big problem and now you can focus on other big problems. Expecting your automation supplier to just “go away” and come up with a design that will fit your needs isn’t a good plan. The process needs to be collaborative for it to have a good outcome.

At this stage of a scale-up project, there will be a lot of effort around establishing requirements, exploration, discovery, and iteration. We don’t want to burden the client, but they’re hiring us to help them and that requires a feedback loop, being able to make decisions and recognition as a partner and not a simple transaction-handler. A good automation integrator can effectively drive and manage this process while the client’s needs are evolving (often daily or weekly), and there isn’t a lot of static information.

The first question on the client’s mind is how much is hiring an automation integrator going to cost me? More often than not, there is no way to accurately estimate what it will take at this early stage. We try to make that very clear and suggest establishing an agreed-upon set of deliverables and a budget that we’re all working towards. 

We give our clients transparency on the rate at which the budget is being spent and on what the progress towards deliverables is. If something in the project changes, being in that constant feedback loop also gives clients the control to more effectively manage how the budget is spent. If a change occurs and the project needs to pivot, we can discuss and agree on how we’ll best use the remaining budget. This also gives clients the ability to pause or shut down certain aspects of the effort that might have shifted to a lessor priority.

Pitfall No. 2: Wanting what you used to have
Most of the people we work with have come from other manufacturing companies with relevant experience and have that as a reference point for their automation requirements. One of the challenges is that they are used to a more established company with a more mature manufacturing environment and that becomes the basis for what they want to implement. But, as my dad used to say, this often creates a “champagne diet with a Kool-Aid budget” problem and being able to scale back their expectations can be challenging.

The company’s upper management know what they want at a high-level and have real project constraints pertaining to money and time. The project team is challenged with taking high-level requirements and turning them into usable detailed requirements and solutions—not all of which fit within the project constraints. The project team members are thinking about where they came from and the automation bells and whistles they had at their prior companies, which often leads to misalignment and ongoing adjustments between their expectations and reality.

An effective automation consultant can help resolve the champagne/Kool-Aid conflict by doing things like coming up with creative alternative solutions, helping differentiate true “needs” from “wants”, and developing rough cost and time estimates to help clients make informed decisions.

Pitfall No. 3: You don’t know what you don’t know—and fail to recognize it
It’s one thing for a client to keep having to lower expectations as described in Pitfall No. 2 but it’s all the more difficult with this last pitfall. Often, by the time we are brought on to a scale-up project, we are presented with a litany of rough automation goals along with a preconceived set of ideas on what it takes to implement these requirements—as determined by folks who are not automation engineers but like to play them on TV.

Many times, these preconceived ideas are not aligned with an automation engineer’s reality, and we can spend quite a bit of time trying to calibrate the client’s idea of what it really takes to do what they want. The people making these judgments have a lot of experience using automation systems—but have never had to implement them—so along with their ideas, they also make assumptions about what it will take to do something. Another problem that can occur is they think that they often give you a high-level idea of what they want and then expect that it is enough to get an accurate estimate of what it will take to do it.

If companies can be realistic about the limits of their automation expertise, they can avoid all the time and sideways energy that comes with having to be convinced they are off-base.

It’s not too early to start talking about automation
During a scale up project, one of the last areas of expertise companies bring into the mix are automation people and so they often come to us later than they should have. Companies tend to focus on architecture, utilities, permitting, etc. well before they engage with an automation integrator. Often there’s not a lot that the integrator can do to influence this. The best advice I can give  to help deal with all of these pitfalls to companies looking to scale up manufacturing is to think about the automation and engage with a trusted integration partner earlier than you think you need to.

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