Fast-Track Projects Without Taking Shortcuts

Make sure everyone agrees on the functional specification first. Running to get a project done is a complete waste of time if you are running in the wrong direction.

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“You want it when?!” How many of us have said this to a customer? Projects don’t always go as we would like them to—the deadline moves, others have delayed the project, or the customer needs a solution in a hurry to deal with a problem. Out of the blue, the control systems integrator may be asked to put a project on the “fast track.”

Let’s say you’re a control system integrator and a customer facing a large product recall comes to you in a panic. The customer needs a means to test its products during production and looks to you to provide a solution. You must design a system for testing and assemble the system to meet a very aggressive schedule— one month versus a three-month delivery time. How do you “fast track” the project?

In a perfect world, the project would follow a linear sequence. You meet with the plant managers and capture their needs and desires, resulting in a user requirements specification. Next, you create a functional specification document outlining the functionality of the system, major components and the sequence of operations. Developing the functional specification may take several weeks, depending on the complexity of the system and the available solutions.

Upon approval of the functional specification, the design team begins the system design. Once the design is completed and approved, materials and equipment are ordered, and programming of the system begins. Equipment may begin to be fabricated and assembled, concurrent to the programming effort.

After assembly and programming are complete, a detailed factory acceptance test is performed, witnessed and approved. Shortly after the FAT, onsite commissioning and acceptance testing is completed.

Take a non-linear path
Is it possible to do all of the above steps on a “fast-track” project? Yes. Can any steps be eliminated? No. However, some steps be taken concurrently to save time. For example, when you meet with the customer’s managers, find out exactly what they need and when. Is the entire control panel needed or just the enclosure? Are electricians waiting to run conduit and pull wire? Often, you can deliver a sub-set of the project so that other requirements are met, allowing you time to complete the entire project.

As with any project, the user’s requirements and a functional specification are a necessity. Running to get a project done is a complete waste of time if you are running in the wrong direction. Regardless of the schedule, the functional specification must be completed and all parties should approve of what has been defined.

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While the functional specification process moves forward, long lead-time items should be discussed and purchased. Some items do not depend on the outcome of the functional specification, such as control panel, processors, and variable frequency drives. Also during the functional specification process, the control panels can be designed—especially the sections that aren’t going to change—power requirements can be defined, and major components can be designed.

Some programming can be started as well. Tag layout, program structure, add-on instructions, for example, can be roughly defined and ready so that once the functional specification is completed, a skeleton of the code has been prepared, saving time.

Make sure the functional specification is complete and approved by the customer. Then, do in advance what will be unaffected by the outcome of the functional specification. Finally, lace up your racing shoes and run!

Stephen Blank, stephen.blank@lomancsi.com, is chief executive officer of Loman Control Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA)

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