Automation Project Management from a Machine Builder’s Perspective

July 11, 2013
By Paul Brinks, Chief Operating Officer, Koops, Inc.

1. Select and build your internal project team. This is an important first step that should never be skipped. Getting the right people with the right attitude will make the project successful. Work this one through before calling an equipment supplier; it will save precious time and money.

  • Involve departments. Manufacturing, Quality, Finance, Purchasing, Facilities, Engineering.
  • Select people for the team with the right combination of skills and attitudes.

2. Select a Project Manager. This person will build, execute, and monitor the project plan and head up the team throughout the entire process to ensure continuity of understanding and commitments. This person will be the only contact with the systems builder or supplier.

3. Define your automation goals. The project manager must set the agenda for the meetings and be persistent. The goal is to develop a Technical Specification (Tech Spec) that lays out the design parameters and the performance expectations for the system's builder. The following list will get you started on a Technical Specification Form:

General Information

  • Project Name
  • Tech Spec revision level
  • Tech Spec revision date
  • Project description
  • Estimated machine life
  • Target cost

Performance Specifications

  • Production rate
  • Maximum noise levels
  • Capability
  • Operator duties
  • Number of operators
  • Setup and changeover
  • Repeatability

Machine Definition

  • Operation sequence
  • Guarding
  • Ergonomics
  • Cycle activation
  • Frame configuration
  • Size footprint
  • Power requirements
  • Quality/Poka-Yoke*

Acceptance Criteria

  • Runoff requirements
  • Safety review
  • Poka-Yoke verification
  • Training
  • Documentation requirements

Project Management

  • Timeline Development
  • Transportation
  • Installation
  • Warranty
  • Terms

4. Justification. This may be a challenge. Management and the project team must be committed to the value of the investment. Companies will vary greatly as to how the justification is measured and how quickly a return on investment is required. Many common areas looked at for justification are: Capacity, efficiency, quality, personnel reduction, safety, sales value, etc.

Note: It is very useful to narrow it down to three of the major issues and put dollar amounts and specific justification to those issues. You can review the documentation after the automation project has been up and running and compare that to your original thinking.

5. Select a supplier. The best supplier is the one that you can trust. Start by calling a few companies in for interviews. Use the Technical Specification (Item 3) as reference and ask the hard questions to determine the experience, capacity, capability and thoroughness of the supplier. Pick the supplier with whom you feel most comfortable.

6. The Contract. The qualified supplier will be able to contribute with ideas and concepts that must be reviewed with the project team. Solidify those ideas into a contract with the supplier. The contract should include your commitments and those of the supplier. The supplier will use your Technical Specifications (Item 3) to develop a contract (proposal) that will address the following:

  • A sign-off on all technical descriptions of the system
  • Production rate of the system
  • Final part drawings from the customer
  • Capability to hold tolerances over a period of time
  • Progress meetings and milestones
  • Statements regarding noise, safety, and environment
  • Training for operation and maintenance
  • Recommended spare parts
  • Documentation and manuals
  • Names of selected components
  • Criteria for acceptance of the system at the supplier.
  • Criteria for acceptance of the system at your plant
  • Procedure for handling changes after the order
  • Warranty and service policies
  • Delivery date
  • Project price
  • Payment terms

7. Monitor the project. It is highly advisable that project managers from both the buyer and the supplier stay with the project throughout the entire process. Good communication on all the details between the two is critical throughout the project. The supplier should provide a timeline with all the critical milestones:

  • Process planning
  • Design review of electrical, mechanical, and flood power systems
  • Purchase parts ordered
  • Subassembly
  • Final assembly
  • Debug time
  • Runoff at supplier
  • Runoff at your plant
  • Training
  • Installation and startup

8. Training. Select the person from the project team that will be responsible for the operation and maintenance of the automation system. This key person must take ownership and develop a plan for involving other people from the plant floor and learning as much about the system from the supplier as possible. This is crucial as the transfer of ownership takes place from the supplier to you.

The following list should be covered the training process:

  • All operational aspects including setup and changeover procedure
  • PLC, operator interface, and other system programming
  • Interlock and safety systems
  • Trouble shooting and repair service training
  • Preventive maintenance schedule
  • Manual and other documentation

9. Runoff and acceptance at the supplier. The intent is that the system, as designed and as stated in the Technical Specification, will be run off at the supplier's plant and that it meets or exceeds the criteria as agreed upon.

10. Installation, Final acceptance, and Production startup. The acceptance criteria as stated in the contract will be the standard. This can be a critical time since all the planning done previously must come together at this point.

It is now time for the person and company who purchased the system to demonstrate their readiness by putting the system into production. This is usually done with the assistance of the supplier.

Notwithstanding warranty and service agreement coverage, most suppliers are eager to have the system running smoothly before leaving the plant.

Koops Inc., Grand Rapids, Michigan, builds assembly and process automation systems

and workstations for a broad range of industries.


Poka-Yoke is a Japanese term that means "mistake-proofing." A poka-yoke is any mechanism in a lean manufacturing process that helps an equipment operator avoid mistakes. Its purpose is to eliminate product defects by preventing, correcting, or drawing attention to human errors as they occur. More broadly, the term can refer to any behavior-shaping constraint designed into a process to prevent incorrect operation by the user.

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