12 common mistakes people make in automation projects

July 11, 2013
In their rush to complete an automation project, people make the same mistakes over and over again. This “ready-fire-aim” approach to planning and executing an automation project inevitably causes major headaches, cost over-runs and delayed schedules.
1. Don't limit input. The most common mistake is limiting the initial input to too few people. Many managers are surprised when they hear an insight from a person in their plant. It's much easier, and less expensive, to build that insight into the project planning from the start.

2. Never assume. Mistakes are most often made during the definition phase, when you think that everything will be easy to do--motors just need to move from point A to B with synchronized speed, for example, and then during the installation phase, when signal cables are routed together with power cables and shielding is simply forgotten. This causes all kinds of strange equipment behavior later, when it's hard to locate the source of the problem.

3. Start with the integrator. Don't select and buy equipment based on a specific vendor's recommendations, then hire an integrator to get it to work. Instead, hire the integrator to do the design and program and start up the system. In the end, it will not cost more. Time spent in the field getting a mix of components to work together is extremely inefficient versus implementing a system with devices that are designed to work together. An experienced systems integrator inherently designs a system to perform to a customer's requirements while minimizing the time it takes the integrator to deliver it.

4. Copy and paste. People don't make mistakes when planning automation projects; the mistakes are planned in. This is because most machines are sold before they are fully developed and rely on the experience of previous projects using a copy and paste approach to get them completed on time. The consequence of this common strategy is that you automatically give up the perfect solution for one that is good enough. The tragedy is that, with careful accounting, the differential between a white sheet design (starting with a new platform that commonly comes with an "App Store") is much quicker than the copy /paste /mop strategy. It also retains more customers because the adoption curve is much quicker for machines with more "canned" features.

5. Failure to communicate. One of the most common mistakes is not communicating with the end user and technical staff. If a machine does not make their work easier, they will find a way to make your system do what they want even if it causes other problems. If you do not consider the technical staff, the repairs or adjustments will be met with resentment and most likely extended downtime.

6. Handshakes critical. Not paying attention to handshaking signals and improper use of I/O handling can cause serious damage to equipment, eventually causing more downtime. When two machines need to work together, it is critical to use appropriate handshaking signals to avoid any cell or machine damage. Bypassing safety is another cause for problems. Design cells so workers cannot bypass safety measures.

7. Experts inside. In-house expertise is essential to the success of any project. Integrators build good machines and systems, but when they are deployed in the plant environment, it's the in-house expertise that turns a good system into a great system.

8. Plan for changes. When designing, or budgeting for automation projects, usually there is a clear goal or list of things that need to happen. But you also need to plan for the unforeseen. Something will always come up later on that will need to be added. To cover this, always add 20 percent to the overall project budget. Also, additional checks or sensors may be needed down the line, so make sure you have extra I/O or at least the flexibility to expand the I/O if needed.

9. Do a punch list. After initial implementation, get agreement from everybody on the punch list of items that need to be updated. That includes operators, technicians and production management. People might disagree on what has been accomplished and what still needs to be done.

10. Can a machine do the job? If the automation project is based on replacing labor, you will first need to understand the totality of what is being done manually. You may need to go back to the drawing board if a machine cannot do what an operator has been doing.

11. Limit program access. Always run an information session after commissioning to familiarize all personnel who may be involved with set-point changes, principles of operation, etc., and use password protection to allow set-point changes only within a specified range. Never allow full access to program changes.

12. Forbid coding from Day 1. Automation engineers love to puzzle with the problems they get on their table. Forbid any use of coding software until the entire scope is clear and closed, the delivery has been broken down to manageable pieces (Work Breakdown Structure) and everybody knows what are the tasks and the targets ahead of them. Also, make sure that the tasks and the targets are properly documented before letting the engineers loose on the coding tasks, because to have them document it afterwards involves twisting their arms to make them do it. Diving right into detailed problem solving and coding is the fastest way to failure in an automation project.

7 Automation Don'ts

1. Don't over-complicate the solution. Keep the solution simple.
2. Don't program the machine first. Always program or storyboard the HMI first.
3. Don't neglect the communication protocols and interface terminals when evaluating control products.
4. Don't waste too much time planning without customer input. That could cause critical planning errors that will need to be corrected at heavy expense and effort.
5. Don't forget the grounding.
6. Don't propose a project without a good understanding of the requirements. That guarantees scope creep.
7. Don't always believe what salesmen tell you. Do your homework and make your own decisions for your application.

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