Automation system integration project management: Extra answers from the webcast

Back to Basics tutorial: Questions and answers follow related to the “Tips for automation system integration project management” webcast. Additional audience questions provide added advice and answers about automation system integration project management from experts in control system project management. See links below for a related story and the archived webcast.


Additional answers related to the "Tips for automation system integration project management” webcast are provided below. Questions came from audience members of the Sept. 12, 2015, webcast, now archived. These answers show how automation system integration project management, when done right from project inception, can mean the difference between a successful implementation that adds value and one that doesn’t.

Don Roberts is an auditor for the Control System Integrator Association (CSIA) and a consultant and principal of Exotek LLC, a management-consulting firm focused on the engineering and systems integration industry. Courtesy: ExotekAnswers below are provided by Don Roberts, an auditor for the Control System Integrator Association (CSIA) and a consultant and principal of Exotek LLC, a management-consulting firm focused on the engineering and systems integration industry, and by Dennis Brandl, founder and chief consultant at BR&L Consulting Inc., specializing in helping companies use Manufacturing IT to improve production, laboratory, and logistics processes. Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering (part of CFE Media), moderated and presented a few slides on Control Engineering research on system integration.

On standards

Question: Does it make sense to map existing objects (redesign) into the SP95/SP88 Object Model at the outset?

Dennis Brandl is a founder and chief consultant at BR&L Consulting Inc., specializing in helping companies use Manufacturing IT to improve production, laboratory, and logistics processes. Courtesy: BR&L Consulting Inc.Brandl: In some cases, yes. If you are integrating more than two systems together, it is often less work to map all systems to a standard format (ISA 95 or ISA 88) [ISA 95 Enterprise-Control System Integration and ISA 88 Batch Control, which is used widely beyond batch control]. Also, if you expect that the systems you are integrating will be changed over time, then picking a nonversion-dependent format such as ISA 95 and ISA 88 is less work in the long run. However, if neither system follows the ISA 95 or ISA 88 models internally, and they are not expected to change, then redesigning just to follow the standard may not provide any benefit.

Q: Does following ISA SP95/SP88/SP99 [ISA 99 Security Technologies for Industrial Automation and Control Systems] design patterns save money on system integration projects?

Brandl: Usually yes, especially if the integration project involves multiple systems. Also, applying a standard format and design pattern reduces the conflicts and misunderstandings when two incompatible systems are integrated. It doesn’t always save money, but applying the ISA 88 patterns of equipment modules, control modules, and phases always saved money and time on a project.

Q: Can standards for batch processing control help?

Brandl: Yes the ISA 88 standards for equipment modules, control modules, and phases make Level 2-3 and Level 2-3 integration easier (Level 2—Control, Level 3—Manufacturing Operations).

Q: What other industry guidelines can help with control system integration project management?

Roberts: The CSIA produces an excellent resource for anyone involved in system integration projects. The CSIA Best Practices information is available for members only but is well worth the price of membership.

On software

Q: From a project management standpoint, you didn't mention any software-related unique issues with managing "Earned Value" versus budget and schedule during functional definition development, coding, and testing.

Brandl: I believe that software project management is best done using an agile or DevOps [development operations management] method, because it is easier to estimate value versus effort and to decide when it is time to “finish” the project and know exactly what is complete and what is not complete.

Q: One registrant has used project management documents in modular sets that can be assembled into a master document in modularization and structurization. Any comments or suggestions about this?

Roberts: This is a great idea but absolutely requires the use of good configuration management practices.

Q: Are there software features for tracking projects’ tasks and time that we should look for?

Roberts: If you are new to the use of project management tools be sure to avoid the temptation to get too complex. Don't tackle resource management at the same time as you build your skills with the tools. If you try to manage resources too tightly you end up scheduling sick time, vacations, customer interruption, and the like. More time will be spent on the tool than delivering the project.

On budget and time management

Q: Any hints or tips and tricks on how to better manage earned value of actual progress versus budget and schedule?

Brandl: Use a DevOps or Agile model for development so you can accurately measure functions achieved (value) versus time spent (budget and schedule).

Q: What is the best way to influence stakeholders for earlier system integrator engagement in the project ... especially when cost is the concern?

Brandl: The best way I have found is to ask who in the asset owner company will be working on and managing the project and how much time they can really spend on the project. I have found that if they can truthfully answer the question, they soon realize that they don’t have the internal resources or skill sets to complete the project, especially if the internal resources are also doing other jobs. 

Q: Do you have project inception hints to avoid cost overruns and scope creep?

Roberts: Spend the time and the money on a good functional specification. It is much cheaper to do this than to change things later in the project.

Q: How do you best define between the wants and needs of an automation project?

Brandl: Ask for a value estimation by factors of 2, (2x as valuable, 4x as valuable, 8x as valuable) for each major requirement. It’s easy for people to say something is ½ or 2x as important. The lower values are probably wants not needs. Also some wants are based on an “assumed” implementation, so you have to make clear when requirements are not valid if a different architecture is used.

On selecting system integrators

Q: How can a project manager pick the right integrator for the project? Is personality important?

Roberts: I would start by looking for a CSIA Certified Integrator. They have gone through third-party assessment of their entire business practices. Personality is important. Look at the three legs of project management and see how well the integrator's team will do in each area.

Most controls providers are making inroads into providing engineering services. Why would one consider an independent integrator if the controls provider will need to be included anyway.

Building a world class product is totally different than the business of delivering system integration projects. You should also be looking for a long-term relationship with the integrator instead of the transaction associated with buying a product.

Q: Most controls providers are making inroads into providing engineering services. Why would one consider an independent integrator if the controls provider will need to be included anyway?

Hoske: Some involved with control system integration have strong views on this topic. Some related Control Engineering articles are linked below:

Q: When working with a system integrator on an automation project, what should the customer research versus taking the recommendations of the system integrator?

Roberts: This depends on what you hired the integrator to do. If you hired them because of their experience and expertise you should not try to force them to work outside of this by making alternate recommendations. All of this should be clearly discussed during the kickoff meeting.

Redesigns, retrofits

Q: What are key project considerations when redesigning automation?

Brandl: As listed in the presentation, consider a redesign if any of the following are true:

  • No design or testing documents for the existing systems
  • Automation contains a “don’t touch cause you’ll break it” application
  • Lots of “little” interfaces needed instead of a few simple ones
  • Processes being integrated are tightly coupled
  • No obvious integration points.

Q: Are there any special considerations for retrofit projects?

Roberts: Keep in mind that the operator will have a strong opinion about how the new system will work. If that is not considered during the design it could make commissioning and acceptance difficult.

On other project management topics

System integrators usually aren’t invited into projects as soon as they should be, according to Control Engineering research. Courtesy: Control Engineering

Q: Are there any issues or advice specific to contractors with automation system integration projects?

Brandl: Make sure that you have time available for the contractors to talk with and review work with internal resources. The worst thing to do is to leave the contractors alone and assume that they know everything about your systems, your project management requirements, and your approval processes.  They can waste a lot of time coming up to speed on your way of working, time that can be saved with simple conversations and time from your internal staff.

Q: Do you have tips for managing customer expectations and integrator deliverables?

Roberts: It is all about good communication. Define the expectations for communicating up front in the project.

Q: How should testing criteria for the project be developed?

Roberts: Start with the functional specification document and modify it to include a place for test results and signatures.

Q: What are the minimum requirements to begin a project, such as client project objectives, definition of process technology, risk reduction strategy, P&IDs [piping and instrumentation diagrams], process narrative, constructability plan, overall project execution plan, etc.?

Roberts: The CSIA Best Practices, mentioned above, do a good job of documenting this.

Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control EngineeringQ: Are proof-of-concept trials recommended before integration?

Roberts: Yes. There are many projects where this is the best approach. Isolating risks into smaller focused efforts can minimize the impact on the project.

- Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

Online Extra
For more on these topics, see the "Tips for automation system integration project management" webcast at

See standards from the International Society of Automation.

Learn more about project management with the links provided below. 

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