Nine tips for automation project managers

July 11, 2013
More than technical skills are required to successfully manage an automation project. It also requires communication and organizational skills, along with the ability to motivate a team of people from a variety of disciplines and different departments.

Here are a few practical tips for automation project managers:

1. Project management resource. There have been thousands of words written about project management. If you think you need a refresher course, or expect to be assigned to your first project, there’s an organization, Project Management Institute, dedicated to establishing standards, providing training and certifying individuals in project management skills.

2. Welcome the bad news. Every automation project has things that go wrong, but the earlier you find out what the problems are, the easier and cheaper they are to fix. Nobody wants to hear or deliver bad news, but it’s important not to get defensive. Anybody on the team needs to be able to push the stop button if a project has gone off the tracks. Otherwise, you’re just gambling that things will come out all right at the end.

3. Keep simplicity top-of-mind. Engineers tend to make systems too complex for non-engineers to deal with. Make sure expectations are established early that will keep the needs of the people who will have to operate and maintain the systems a priority. Include people from these functions on the automation team and consult them early in the design and testing stages for new systems and equipment.

4. Be ready to adjust. As with any project, unrealistic projections, poor execution and just plain bad design can cause a project to fail. What is important is that when you begin a project, understand that there will be modifications necessary along with way. The final result is rarely as exactly planned. This is not considered a failure; it’s a realistic need to adjust and fine-tune as the project progresses.

5. Establish testing plans early. It isn’t enough to design a system. You have to test it to prove that it works, not once but twice. It’s easy to get started on designing the tests by using a template. Equipment or systems should first be tested at the facilities of the integrator or OEM. This is called FAT (Factory Acceptance Testing), and its goal is to prove that the system design will work. Simulate various scenarios to find out how the system will react. The final testing stage, SAT (Site Acceptance Testing), is done when the system is delivered to the factory floor. Its objective is to prove that the equipment actually does work as designed and is producing product at the level required. Approve the testing plans early in the project so that everyone knows exactly what performance measures they need to achieve. Don’t rush the testing phase; make sure you leave enough time in the project schedule to accomplish the necessary tests. It’s also important to make sure the right people attend the FAT; that includes the lead operator and maintenance tech, not just the manager.

6. Follow programming standards. Make sure that in-house programmers, system integrators and OEMs use the same PLC programming standards, such as OMAC and PackML. There’s nothing worse than custom code that has to be reworked at the last minute to make it compatible with a plant’s existing systems. Multiple approaches to programming can cost a company millions of dollars.

7. Communicate often. Don’t make decisions without consulting the team. Unilateral decision-making alienates the team, creates confusion and fails to take advantage of the unique expertise of the team members. Foster open communication and communicate frequently, so that everyone on the team understands the issues and is aware of any problems that need to be resolved. Establish a communications roadmap for vendors; check with them soon into the project to make sure it’s working.

8. Don’t be a roadblock. As project manager, it’s your responsibility to respond to information requests and approve various aspects of the project in a timely fashion. Stay involved and be responsive to prevent delays in the project’s timeline.

9. Make sure you have bench strength. There’s nothing that delays a project more than a team member who gets assigned to another project and no longer has the time to devote to your project. Identify alternative resources early and have them ready to fill in if needed. That same rule applies to the systems integrator’s team; make sure they’ve identified people with equivalent skills who can be assigned to the project if required.

Looking for training?

There’s a source to help you learn the ropes of project management or improve your skills.  For more information, visit

Organization: Project Management Institute

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