No matter the scale of a project, automating a controls system can quickly become very challenging. Historically, software development projects have seen about 50 percent of projects delivered late, over budget, or with less functionality than desired. In some cases, they have outright failed. Project management is more often than not going to determine the outcome and satisfaction level of your automated controls solution.
When surveyed, most people expect to see a typical bell curve when comparing development practices among organizations—a few really poor organizations, a few exceptional organizations and the rest somewhere in the middle. In reality, what was discovered is a small number of organizations have implemented good development practices, with the majority operating very ineffectively; the ratio of good to bad is about 1:10.
Good project management is not something that just happens; it requires a deliberate effort and a commitment to continuous improvement. There are several different methodologies for project management, and choosing which is best is really just an organizational decision. But ideally, project management should be a well-defined set of documented procedures. Whether the controls provider is an OEM or a system integrator, you should expect them to be able to articulate how the project is going to be managed.
The project lifecycle defines various phases a project goes through from concept to delivery. Most are very similar. Understanding the project lifecycle will allow you to identify critical points where you should engage in the process.
- Concept phase: This generally involves conversations between sales, engineering and the customer resulting in a high-level view of the project constraints and goals.
- Planning phase: The project team will analyze and document requirements, develop functional specifications, work through the design process, prepare work plans and schedule deliverables.
- Development phase: Solution development and incremental unit testing along with periodic design reviews are key activities during this phase. Design reviews are a critical point for customer involvement.
- Stabilization phase: This involves testing the completed solution, prioritizing and resolving bugs, and preparing for release of the solution. It typically culminates with customer acceptance in the form of a factory acceptance test.
- Deployment phase: Installing and commissioning the automated controls will include post-implementation support.
- Safety and design risk analysis are an ongoing process throughout the project lifecycle.
Discovery is an important part of the project lifecycle. It’s also a part of project management that is often overlooked or not addressed. Developing an automated solution is an intellectual and iterative process that has very few tangibles from the start. Unless you are working from an existing design, there is very little to share except your ideas.
As the solution is developed, tangible objects and testable functions are created based on the exchange of those ideas. By engaging in design review, intent and expectations can be made known earlier on, influencing the design and helping expectations to be met. As a note, when discussing discovery, you should also discuss how design changes will be handled—this can become a point of contention, especially if they are seen as outside the current scope of work.
Realistic expectations are essential to the success of a project. Just about anything can be accomplished simply as a function of time and money. Therefore, it is important to be clear on the expectations and just as important to understand what the limitations and constraints are.
Three main drivers, or constraints, have the strongest influence on a project: features, time and cost. It is very hard to change one without affecting the others. Adding more features typically results in more time and more cost. Reducing the time for an earlier delivery will likely result in fewer features. Reducing the cost could also result in reducing the features.
Whether it is an upgrade to an existing machine or an entirely new production line, you have envisioned increased efficiencies and production along with other goals. You know how you want the production line to operate and have set expectations for the automated controls system. A well-managed project is more likely to meet your goals, and be delivered on time and within budget.
Larry Asher is director of operations at Bachelor Controls Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Bachelor Controls, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.