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The dos and don'ts of managing a controls project

11 March, 2013

There are many ways that controls projects can go wrong. Michael Hill, managing director of UK-based Optima Control Solutions, draws on his extensive experience to offer advice on how to manage projects effectively, to the satisfaction of both the supplier and the client.

Once a control system project has been completed, its ownership transfers to the customer and their production and engineering staff. From that point on, ease of maintenance and the cost of ownership kick in.

This long period of responsibility for the machine control system is often not fully considered during the procurement process. Two simple measures can optimise the ownership experience for both the customer and the supplier, and both actions will maximise the quality of project engineering – a sufficient allocated budget and realistic timescales.

A project will be deemed successful by both the customer and the supplier when each of the following four component disciplines has been met:

•  budget;

•  deadline;

•  functionality; and

•  engineering quality.

Too often, projects are compromised on budget and timescale, thus jeopardising the engineering quality and resulting in an undesirable ownership experience. The procurement process is almost always classified as “successful” when the lowest price for whatever being bought is obtained, for what appears to be the same level of goods and services provided.

It is no secret that a lower cost will mean reduced deliverables, though the compromises that the supplier makes to provide the cheapest price often reside in the engineering discipline and are not always obvious. The quality of engineering and project management is not so easy to determine at the procurement stage and it is this engineering input that determines the life-long ownership experience.

Pecking order

Of the four important success criteria, one is invariably met – functionality. Deadline comes next in the list of must-haves, then budget and finally engineering quality.

Why are they prioritised that way? It might be a “natural” phenomenon. Three of the four disciplines conclude when the project is handed over. Even when budgets are squeezed:

•  Functionality cannot suffer The machine must perform its primary functions, and because this is easily measureable everyone understands and agrees.

•  Deadlines have to be met Because shutdowns are planned and downtime is expensive – again, measureable, understood and agreed – then

•  Budgets often flex One party or the other will generally end up overspending on their originally projected costs.

The final important discipline is engineering quality and its impact lives on long after the handover stage. It is the least understood by procurement professionals, it is the most difficult to measure, and the easiest one to compromise unwittingly. A low cost price inevitably means that less time can be afforded to a project and, when time is tight, corners are cut unwillingly to meet a deadline. No one wants this.

Understanding the engineering and management content of a project is therefore crucial to optimise the ownership experience and evaluate supplier proposals.

What can customers expect?

Both customer and supplier have key roles to play. I strongly advise the involvement of customer-focused engineering professionals in the assessment process. Today’s control systems are highly technical and complex in nature.

The procurement process begins with a visit from a supplier’s sales and applications engineer. This should be someone with extensive experience in the field of automation and control engineering. He must be familiar with the subject machine, its processes and the control methods used (both when the machine was built and with current best-practice techniques and equipment).

The supplier’s track record of providing solutions for a specific application, or ones closely comparable, is a good indicator of its ability to deliver. Testimonials and site visits are an excellent way to satisfy these queries.

The supplier’s independence from component manufacturers will ensure that whatever system they propose will be the most appropriate for the application. This can be a particularly complex area and depth of experience will simplify the decisions enormously.

Look for a fundamental understanding of the machine process. It is probably the most difficult skill to acquire, but the most important in delivering a successful project. This refers again to the track record.

The supplier’s proposed technical solution should stand up to customer scrutiny. There is usually little room for variance here if the machine is to be controlled in a prescribed way. So, the supplier’s understanding of the process will be critical, as will their suggested key equipment manufacturer.

The real differentiator usually boils down to the engineering content, the project structure and management. These, as discussed above, influence the system ownership directly.

Key management activities in industrial automation projects
Regular engineering stage reviews Engineering complex control systems is a skilled process. An engineer must be multi-faceted, with an expert command of electrical engineering, software development, machine and personnel safety, and hazardous area design methods, to name a few. Most of these have serious legal compliance obligations on behalf of the customer. Given the range of expertise required, regular reviews of the various elements is an essential part of the design process. Sticking to plan is also of significant commercial importance because deadlines need to be met.
Progress correspondence and/or progress meetings with clients Projects inevitably produce variations as they progress. No matter how deep an initial machine survey is, something new always comes to light. Some part of a process has not been identified or some product that has not been processed in living memory will need trialling. It is with these on-going developments in mind that regular dialogue is necessary between the project manager and client. Projects such as these rely heavily on a strong customer-supplier relationship. For this reason close dialogue and regular development and progress updates are essential.

Key engineering activities in industrial automation projects 
1. Planning A project plan that details key design stages and review milestones indicates good engineering discipline.
2. Survey The degree of detail needed for a useful machine survey cannot be overstated.
3. Specification This document is arguably the most critical one in a project, laying down the full scope of supply, the control philosophy and functionality.
4. Electrical design (hardware) Electrical design is important for the longevity of any control system. Electrical design engineers must have not only a comprehensive command of high-level electrical engineering methods, but also in-depth knowledge to design legally-compliant safety systems, cabling techniques and component specification.
5. Software design (SCADA, PLC, drives, sensors)  Well-written, structured and well-documented software is one of the most important elements for later system maintenance and support activities. Expediency when diagnosing and resolving the causes of downtime can save significant lost production time and, thus, money.
6. Procurement There is a high skill level required to procure specialist controls equipment. Supply chain relationships that exist between the system integrator and their suppliers can mean longer warranty periods, improved prices and elevated levels of support from product specialists.
7. Panel build Advances in electronic components mean better, faster performance characteristics which, in turn, means more dynamic electromagnetic interference. EMC regulations require that high resistance is a pre-requisite for both emissions and tolerance.
8. Test The testing phase of a control system (before shipment) has a significant impact on the system commissioning time. Testing the control panel thoroughly at this stage will identify most sub-standard components and verify the quality of the control panel construction. More extensive testing should include the energising of high-power controllers and the calibration of motors, transducers and sensors. Communications networks can be set up and tested so that once on-site, the system elements are pre-qualified operationally.
9. Shipping
Shipping, carriage and packing are too often taken for granted. Today’s control systems comprise many components that include sensitive microelectronic devices. Rough handling and transport of control panels can reduce the life of a control system due to shock loads experienced by miniature elements embedded in the main system components. Careful handling and transport methods are needed at each stage of the shipping activity.
10. Installation (optional)
Installation is rightly seen as a major part of a control system project. An efficient installation reduces the downtime burden, potentially reducing loss of production significantly. Planning, management and good documentation are key elements to this activity. The quality of the installation work also has a significant bearing on the ease with which future maintenance and support services are provided and the speed at which failures are found and resolved.
11. Commissioning Commissioning often feels like a frustrating delay getting into production, rather than the task that guarantees production reliability. There is always pressure to hasten this activity in the race to get production from a machine, often meaning that full process and material trials are left incomplete and deferred to a later date. This is inefficient. A comprehensive plan, agreed before commissioning starts, will set out the actions and parameters determined and agreed by the parties that, once met, are proof of compliance with the project specification.
12. Documentation Maintenance and support of any new machine or control system relies heavily on the depth and quality of the system documentation. It is rare to find many simple components in a modern control system. Manufacturers are constantly striving to develop their components with the aim of maintaining a market-leading position. This means that the availability and knowledge of control components are relatively short-lived. Self-sufficiency is therefore highly desirable in machine maintenance, for both efficiency and cost reasons. No engineer can support and fault-find on a control system effectively without comprehensive, up-to-date documentation. These activities rely on the professional development of control circuits using leading design tools (such as CAD) and custom software that is generated according to recognised industrial standards and with good documentation.
13. Sign-off
Obtaining the customer sign–off is a critical and sensitive stage for both parties. A commissioning plan helps this process greatly. Having a pre-determined schedule that is developed up-front is the professional way to address this activity.
14.  Training Training is a vital ingredient in machine ownership. Without controlled, educational exposure to the sometimes wide range of components with resident software, the ready uptake of ownership by the maintenance team is difficult to achieve. A confident engineer works much more effectively than one with limited knowledge and significant reliance on external agencies. Training is essential.

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