A Lesson From Early Technology Adopters

July 27, 2015
How to use proof-of-concept testing to identify potential automation risks early and understand mitigation plans for each.

Early adopters focus on the rewards of integrating advanced technologies into their manufacturing processes. They see the opportunity to jump ahead of the competition by improving quality, reducing costs, increasing flexibility, adding features, and speeding up production. Ultimately, they plan to—and generally will—grab market share.

The risks with these pursuits, however, can be equally significant, by diverting time and money that could be used for more modest, conservative advances. What do these early adopters do to swing the odds in their favor? Most will engage in proof-of-concept testing, which tests key technical challenges that could hamper the project’s success. This step precedes any work on the project and can usually be done quickly and cost effectively.

In addition to reducing risk, proof-of-concept testing can also reduce the system cost, because the system supplier has the confidence to zero-in on a solution, select the right materials, and more accurately scope the hours required to do the job. Without this confidence, system suppliers may add contingency dollars and extra hours to address the project’s unknown factors. Proof-of-concept testing eliminates these unknowns. If the testing does not prove out, the dollars invested are lost. Yet, going forward with a project without understanding the risks involved could be even more costly.

Whether or not you or your company is an early adopter of technology, every automation project has its risks, so take time to learn from those early adopters. Though the risks may be different for you, the basic process is much the same. It starts at project inception with risk identification and mitigation planning, and continues during regular review meetings. Risks can range from parts having a long lead time to not having the technical expertise to maintain necessary hardware.

Most importantly, get it all down on paper (a cliché that has certainly just dated me). By this I mean you should be sure to capture all the relevant information using the digital format of your choosing and develop plans to mitigate each risk. Like early adopters and their proof-of-concept testing, not only does this process reduce project risk, it also represents an opportunity for cost savings. By drawing out unknowns and defining how you deal with them, system suppliers won’t need to apply contingency dollars towards the project. Meanwhile, you help avoid mid-project surprises that are always costly.

After reading my thoughts here, you may still think it fair to expect the system supplier to own the risk on your projects. And while this assumption is not always incorrect, is it really worth it to count on that? After all, no one wins when a project goes sideways.

You owe it to yourself to tip the scales in favor of project success. For manufacturers, this means taking an active role in the risk and mitigation planning activities. Gain as much upside as you can by assessing your project’s risks early and knowing how you will address each of them. It’s worth the effort and increases the likelihood of project success. 

Michael Gurney is CEO of Concept Systems Inc., a Certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. See Concept Systems’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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