Industrial Automation Project Management: Evaluating the Project and Forming the Team

7 min read

Automation projects can be intricate as it is closely related to a company’s business strategy. Industry veterans offer practical pointers to future Project Managers and team members on leading automation projects to success.

This chapter will cover the following topics:

Evaluate automation projects as a business case

Start by exploring whether the proposed automation solution fits with the company’s mission, vision, and values. For example, if the company values sustainability, does the project use renewable energy or energy-efficient solutions? Automation projects are an integral part of business operations and overall strategy. Misalignments of these two can create friction among all stakeholders and cause premature project closure.

Equally important is asking whether these projects are customer-centric, meaning is the company keeping its customers’ interests in mind? Does the project offer a better customer journey, or does it disrupt what they value the most? The Global Chair of Industrial Manufacturing at KPMG, Doug Gates, points out that having a customer-centric mindset can help industrial manufacturers predict and shape their clients’ demands and cultivate loyalty in the long run.

The next step is to set the right course to guide the project down the right path: setting goals and objectives.

Setting the right goals is the first step to success

Goals aim to identify the pain points that the automation system is trying to solve. Objectives define the ways or methods to achieve the goals. Goals without objectives will not have traction and can create conflicts within teams.

A common mistake is setting ambiguous goals, such as improving product quality, having a shorter time to market, or reducing operating costs. These goals do not offer clarity and are open to interpretation. Whereas the QC team might see a 5% rise in the quality score is achievable, the Accounting team might see a 20% increase desirable to improve the bottom line.

Using the OEE framework mentioned in the previous article can help stakeholders create clear goals. “Increase our current quality score from 60% to 70% by identifying faulty products on time” is a concise statement that can help Automation Engineers understand the premise of the system specifications. A clear goal is equally important to the Project Manager and the System Integrator as it helps them prioritize tasks and keep the project on the right course. Lastly, a clear goal can help the project team define what they are expected to deliver.

Objectives are the roadmaps to reaching goals

For industrial projects, team leaders must understand the differences between a brownfield and a greenfield solution.

  • Brownfield projects work within the existing legacy infrastructure, such as retrofitting.
  • Greenfield projects, on the other hand, can be through acquisition or building a system from scratch.

Project teams can expect to encounter the following potential benefits and hurdles:

Brownfield projectsGreenfield projects
Potential benefits
  • Lower upfront cost
  • Requires less training
  • Shorter project timeline
  • Low-risk, as only implementing incremental changes
  • Generally cost-effective in the short run
  • Typically has a smaller project scope
  • Designing future-proofing systems with a clean start
  • Can learn from past mistakes to bring down TCO
  • Utilizing new technologies can attract young talents
  • Opens up opportunities for innovations
  • Invigorate employees with further skills training
  • Creating unique competitive advantages for the company
Potential hurdles
  • Legacy systems may not support new IIoT functions
  • Documentation, source code, or CAD designs may no longer be available
  • Difficulty in recruiting programmers/engineers to support dates technologies
  • Improvements achieved may not justify the investment, resulting in high TCO
  • Business decisions made over a decade ago may no longer be applicable
  • Higher upfront cost
  • A longer project timeline
  • A wider project scope
  • Can disrupt business and production

One way is not better than the other, but choosing one over the other will impact the communication plan and project scope.

The key takeaways from evaluating an automation project like a business plan are:

  • The North Star guiding the project should always be the company’s Operating Principles and its clients’ values,
  • Setting concise goals using the OEE method helps keep the project stay focused, and,
  • Objectives are ways to reach the goals. Knowing the inherent advantages and challenges of different approaches can help Project Managers form the right team, create a communication plan, and define the project scope.

Forming the right team

One of the keys to creating a successful project team is finding the right talents. Though automation projects can be complex, experts agree that a project management team does not have to be big. Industry veterans also compare the high project success rate of working with a qualified System Integrator to taking on the automation project internally. Experienced System Integrators “provide the value-added engineering services that focus on your company’s specific needs.” In other words, they already have dedicated talents and tools to help develop a successful solution without starting from scratch.

Look for technical qualifications in team members

Choosing underqualified team members can have devastating consequences for an automation project. Mistakes in project scoping, estimation, or assessment can be difficult and costly, especially as the automation project moves into later phases.

Companies that create solutions in-house will have to ensure the project members are proficient in PLC, HMI, hardware integration, software programming, network protocol, UI/UX design, etc. On top of that, there needs to be someone dedicated to vendor/supplier selection and assessment.

Many manufacturers, instead, opt to work with a System Integrator that already has a team of qualified engineers. When a project team decides to work with external resources like a System Integrator, the members need to be chosen for their can-do attitude, critical thinking and analytical abilities, project management capabilities, and knowledge in the production processes.

Appoint someone who understands the industry as the Project Manager

A Project Manager is responsible for steering the automation project down the right direction. They are also the point of contact with stakeholders and vendors, making them critical in an automation project. One of the criteria for selecting a qualified Project Manager is the level of their industry knowledge. It can take up to ten years to become knowledgeable about the industry the company’s in, especially in heavy industries. However, a knowledgeable project leader brings cohesion to the team members by being:

  • Proficient in disciplines outside of their area of expertise,
  • Well-informed about the competition’s offering, and
  • Resourceful with external and internal connections.

Partner up with a System Integrator whenever you can

System Integrators are professional services that build automation control systems using commercially available hardware components and develop software algorithms based on application needs. They help manufacturers (end-users) automate tasks or processes by providing solutions and long-term technical support.

The not-for-profit Control System Integrator Association (CSIA) comprehensively sums up the benefits of working with a System Integrator in this article. The following points are the most important ones that why working with professional System Integrators can keep the Total Cost of Ownership low:

  • Knowing and applying current industry standards in safety, environmental and modern technology.

    Experienced System Integrators work with a wide variety of end-users. They constantly keep tabs on the latest technologies and best practices such as OSHA guidelines, machine safety, process safety, international programming standards, network standards, security, etc. An end-user may not possess talents readily in each field and hiring them for an automation project can be difficult to justify financially.

  • Choosing the best hardware and software for an application.

    It is a System Integrator’s job to be well-versed in the interoperability of many hardware components. They are also competent in developing algorithms and implementing software programs to interface with these components. The intricacy of building an automation system takes years, if not decades, to master. Frequently, in-house System Engineers do not have the time and resources to reach the level of proficiency of an Integration Engineer whose career is dedicated to studying system integration. End-users partnering with the right System Integrator can realize a higher return on the automation project in the long run.
     
  • Providing proper project documentation.

    Documentation is paramount to an automation system’s future maintenance and upgrades. System Integrators typically look after multiple installations at any time. It is in their best interests to keep the project well documented for future references. It is, unfortunately, more challenging for the end-users to achieve the same amount of details.

Smooth execution of an automation project starts with selecting the right team members. Internal team members should have the technical expertise that expands from hardware technologies to software programming. Leading the team towards success is a Project Manager who has profound industry knowledge and understanding of multiple job functions. Finally, do not underestimate an industrial project’s complexity. Partnering up with a professional System Integrator can be instrumental in mitigating risks and shortening the project timeline.

Sound project management depends on having a comprehensive communication plan. In the next and final chapter, we will discuss methods to communicate effectively with the project’s stakeholders, team members, and external partners. Finally, we share industry experts’ tips on managing scope creep, the top cause for delaying automation projects.