Manufacturing is a competitive landscape that is fraught with risk. To remain a leader in any given manufacturing sector requires skill and dedication to know your processes, understand them better than anyone else, and continually identify ways to improve them.
Often lost in this process is the time to effectively navigate the mechanics of a traditional project selection process. Part of the problem here is that manufacturers are so busy mastering the nuances of their production operations that they have a tough time staying on top of emerging technologies. This commonly leads to an ineffective start on improvement projects, once those projects are identified. And a bad start often leads to bad implementation, higher costs and avoidable risk.
A lot of manufacturers employ a front-end engineering design (FEED) process to identify projects, justify them and, if warranted, generate the specification. Other names used for this process include pre-project planning (PPP) and front-end loading (FEL). The purpose of this front-end process is to garner project approval internally and to generate a specification that can be used to go out for bid.
As someone who has seen hundreds of these specifications, I am comfortable saying that manufacturers are generally bad at writing specifications—so much so that they often simply dust off old boilerplate specifications dating back to the early 90s. (Yes, the early 90s is now officially a long time ago.) Developing a proposal for a poorly written specification is time consuming for both the supplier and manufacturer, as time needs to be allocated for providing more information via emails, conference calls and site visits to gather the information the poorly written specification did not provide. The resulting proposals from different potential suppliers will vary in scope and price as wildly as the interpretations gathered in those varied, time-consuming information-gathering sessions. As a result, once proposals are submitted, there is rarely an apples-to-apples comparison, which destroys the point of having written the specification in the first place.
Based on my experience, I suggest that from the day you identify a project the goal should be to achieve a detailed design quickly to save overall project costs and reduce risk. Doing this effectively is a simple matter of scheduling. Saving time on the front end of the project allows more time to be spent on the critical (more risky) aspects of the project. We generally use this time to extend development and testing time to identify problems early on, in our shop, rather than once the equipment is installed in the field. This allows for the project to be completed more quickly, and this means that you can start recognizing the returns of the project sooner.
So how do you achieve this? It's really as simple as maintaining a close relationship with a qualified automation solution provider. Of course, as an automation solution provider myself, this may seem completely self-serving, so to combat that I will suggest maintaining relationships with a couple of solution providers. The point is, having a technical resource that understands your business drivers and processes is invaluable in those times between projects when you are working to identify the next project.
By understanding your business drivers and processes, an automation solution provider brings the technical expertise to the table to quickly justify a project, generate a return-on-investment (ROI) analysis, and get it to a point of an internal go/no-go decision quickly. In this scenario, the proposal becomes a mere formality. And if you decide you want to take the project out for bid, you'll have a well-written specification that will reduce the proposal time and ultimately the entire selection process time.
As a final benefit, a good automation solution provider will also actively identify projects for consideration. By staying on top of emerging technologies and understanding your processes, they are in a unique position to identify and recommend solutions that will offer big returns.
Michael Gurney is co-CEO of Concept Systems Inc., a Certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. Concept Systems is headquartered in Albany, Ore., U.S. Learn more about Concept Systems on the Industrial Automation Exchange.