Design Matters – Are You Placing Your Future In Someone Else’s Hands?

Design Matters – Are You Placing Your Future In Someone Else’s Hands?

As automation systems grow increasingly complex, opportunities for innovation abound.

Systems may appear simple however behind this veil often lies a reliance on increasingly complex software based technology.

As we move towards a lean manufacturing model in search of a sustainable manufacturing future we see an increased focus and dependence on automation and control systems and in particular a demand for improvements in the operability and maintainability of those systems.

Open systems and new technologies are revolutionising the industry, but does our current project methodology provide best opportunities to innovate with this technology? Are we giving due consideration to automation, control and “informatics” at the critical conceptual and specification stages of a project?

In-house project approval and implementation processes tend to be fairly consistent across organisations:

  • Concepts are discussed.
  • Technology/Vendors are researched.
  • Project Briefs are raised, costed, often reworked and trimmed before approval may be granted to proceed.
  • Detailed RFQ documents are then prepared by the project team and issued to a contractor or contractors and the project proceeds.

This approach is proven to deliver results, however the project briefing and specification team is often small, with tight constraints in terms of time and budget. Critically, there is often little or no automation and control specialist representation on this team and often no in-house automation and controls professionals are available to assist.

In this case, while the project engineers will have an intimate understanding of the end goal and process considerations they may lack:

  • A detailed understanding of the automation technology and architecture options available and importantly the long term implications of such options.
  • Knowledge of the options and requirements for integration of the new systems into the existing site automation infrastructure.
  • Understanding of company strategic directions in automation and controls technology (if indeed they are even established).

Tell-tale signs that your project team could have benefitted from up front automation design support include:

  • Missed opportunities for innovation – opportunities for beneficial new product technologies, innovative architectures, innovative control strategies/ approaches.
  • Poor integration of project additions with existing site automation and control systems – leading to difficulties in commissioning, operation and maintenance.
  • Gaps in automation specifications resulting in need for costly post award contract variations.
  • Inappropriate automation technology selected for the site. This may manifest as: operational difficulties, maintenance issues, downtime due to suitable resources not being available to maintain, commercial issues arising from single source support dependency, inappropriate or unnecessary use of immature technology leading to excessive teething problems.
  • Poorly specified system capacity – Insufficient capacity for expansion or excessive/ unnecessarily large capacity included for expansion (cost penalties).
  • Un-anticipated cost and time penalties incurred during project delivery.

Thus inadequate consideration of up front design concepts for automation and controls can directly impact project “success”. Projects may be approved to proceed based on a less than optimum solution and proceed on that basis to detailed design/ RFQ preparation. By the time prices are sought for implementation, the design concept may be to a large extent “locked in”. The prime opportunity for design innovation may thus have already been lost and unnecessary compromises may already be inherent in the specified design. Conversely, lack of detailed understanding of offers may see you unknowingly becoming the guinea pig for new technology.

Importantly the cost impacts arising from insufficient consideration of up-front design will continue to impact the organisation’s bottom line long after the project team is gone.

So how could you better protect yourself and your company?

  1. Recognise that the automation and control field has grown from the domain of hardwired electrical systems to a complex software/ IT driven world. The appropriateness of selection and application of this technology will be central to the success or failure of your project.
  2. Recognise that automation, control and informatics are not just “related to machines and equipment” but provide a key backbone – an information network across your facility. Information will be a key driver of competitive and agile businesses of the future.
  3. Understand that equipment vendors can be useful source of information, but that they will quite naturally be biased toward the solutions which they offer. Remember also that realisation of the promised benefits of their products will ultimately be dependent on correct selection of technology and it’s engineering application in your facility.
  4. Recognise that you need to understand your project team. What are their core capabilities and what are their limits of knowledge and experience? Recognise that it is reasonable for them to have support in specialised areas, even if this support needs to be provided through external sources.
  5. Your protection is in your people. Bring together people who have the capabilities, experience and expertise in:
    • your plant and processes,
    • the desired technology
    • engineering project delivery methods.
  6. Allow this team time to think. Assess and capture this “thinking” in design documents. Writing is such an important tool as it allows for the sharing and clarification of ideas, it often brings to light any incorrect assumptions and ensures that there are clear expectations before commitments are made.

There is no doubt that automation will be an increasingly important element of sustainable manufacturing. Ambitious targets for this automation technology will be the norm. Product offerings abound. Technology projects are not a “leap of faith” if built on strong design principles. Building an empowered project team with the necessary expertise to create the strategic design direction for your organisation is essential.

From our experience you will reap the benefits of building such a design team well into the future. Not only will you be more successful in adopting a technology solution that is just right for your business, the right execution will give more predictability to your return on investment calculations, mitigate possible project risk and overall help to deliver your competitive advantage.

What has been your experience? We welcome your comments. Feel free to drop us an email on or give us a call.

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