Eight things to avoid in control system automation projects

Identifying missteps such as not building a cross-functional team and not defining responsibilities early in a project can help ensure that a control system automation project is successful.


Successful control system automation projects all have common attributes that make them successful. Likewise, failed projects also have common missteps that have a significant negative impact. Proper execution of a control system automation project is a process that involves continual monitoring and adjustments by project leaders. This process encompasses multiple critical steps to ensure the project is being executed properly to meet the end-user goals.

The eight elements listed below have proven to continually cause challenges for a project. The key is to recognize these missteps early and collaborate in a joint effort between parties to ensure the project stays balanced on the tightrope to success.

1. Not building a cross-functional team

Integration projects are not always simple or straightforward and can involve many players across multiple phases. Each player typically has their own area of expertise and a balanced team should be represented by knowledgeable and experienced people in all aspects of the project. Having team members that are able to produce quality solutions quickly, as issues arise, is critically important for a successful project.

These players can include the end-user, engineering firm, general contractor, electrical contractor, systems integrator, and/or mechanical contractors. Each trade must be represented with the correct level of expertise to ensure the team is staffed with the experienced required to meet the project demands. Vetting through experienced personnel is a key task when building a strong and competent team to set up a project for success. It is the project leader's responsibility to ask the correct questions to ensure the team is staffed with the correct personnel to get the job done right.

2. Making assumptions when defining "success"

Specific goals and objectives should be identified and everyone should have a full understanding of what is expected. Courtesy: Cross CompanyDefining what "success" looks like for all parties cannot be understated. This is typically defined within the user requirements specification (URS). A common mistake is to assume an item, deliverable, or expectation is inherently included that is not specifically and clearly spelled out. Specific goals and objectives should be identified and everyone should have a full understanding of what is expected.

Another very common mistake is to assume a platform meets the standard functions that may be derived from a specific legacy platform. The functionality may not be part of this other platform's standard offerings and it would require custom development and testing to ensure it meets those expectations. If those expected functions are not fully identified prior to starting the project, this could lead to additional costs.

To define all base functionality, a software specification can be developed to identify typical library functions or programming standards that should be included within the project. In some cases, due to schedule limitations, projects are budgeted as using platform standards without consideration for any custom functions. This introduces risk, so knowing what you have in an existing legacy system is essential to identify what success looks like for a future platform.

3. Develop a plan with a functional design specification (FDS)

Migrating existing legacy platforms can become a convoluted and a laborious process in the effort to minimize the loss of production costs. These types of projects require extensive planning and engineering prior to going into a shutdown, identifying every single loop and piece of logic to ensure a smooth and timely change-over. Unknown information introduces risk to an automation project, given the level of integration that is required for all elements to work in unison and exchange data easily. Entering into an automation project by first developing a functional design specification (FDS), to define the deliverables and engineering tasks required to meet the final objectives, minimizes that risk.

The FDS document typically defines any and all aspects of:

  • Logic architecture
  • Hardware requirements
  • Software requirements
  • Licensing requirements
  • Software development strategy
  • Input/output (I/O) migration or cut-over strategy
  • Implementation roadmap
  • Engineering deliverables
  • Testing plans
  • Onsite commissioning plan
  • Site acceptance testing plan.

This document has multiple functions. It can be used as a living document that outlines all of the components, deliverables, and implementation strategies, which may vary within each area of the facility, but it may also serve as a tool to evaluate multiple system integrators. Without some concrete deliverables to meet, a common practice for contractors is to provide minimal deliverables to lower the costs. This approach pushes back responsibilities to the end-user to fill in the gaps on items that are not included.

This is an important evaluation to ensure that all bases are covered, going into a project, to ensure that all parties accept the specific responsibilities. Making general assumptions on the level of deliverables typically results in large pricing differences between multiple integrators. Generally, the low bidder has accounted for fewer deliverables that may not be clearly outlined in the proposal. This leads to change orders and represents a risk to the project. Having an FDS to clearly outline all expectations provides the means to get consistent and accurate pricing from multiple integrators and allows for accurate vetting with an "apples to apples" comparison.

An FDS not only outlines the specific scope definition of the automation project, but it also includes an implementation strategy and definition of how each phase will be cut-over and commissioned, as well as a full list of deliverables. This document is a tool that outlines a complete roadmap of implementation, which could possibly include multiple phases over several years.

It holds tremendous value by clearly outlining all of the required elements, and it removes risk by defining all of the unknown items. This document, by far, is considered one of the most important steps to achieve success on a legacy migration or a greenfield automation project.

4. Not following the process and cutting corners

Developing an automation project involves several different aspects and elements that must come together and work harmoniously to achieve success. Successful projects are end results of following a proven project development process. Failures can be linked to bad habits just like successes are results of good habits and executing the process thoroughly.

Each step and phase of the project is just as important as the next. It's the project leader's responsibility to ensure the process is followed. Align with a team that has a proven track record and has a fully documented and understandable process to successfully implement a project. Cutting corners, taking shortcuts, or just wandering aimlessly or being reactionary can be detrimental to the project.

The results of shortcuts are not obvious right away. The issues typically lag the initial causes by a few steps and almost always show their ugly head during the commissioning phase. Project leaders must respect the process and value the discipline to stay on course. Avoid giving in to the scheduling pressures by not bypassing key steps that maintain quality and promote success by holding everyone accountable.

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