7 Steps of Automation Project Success

Seven steps toward automation project success include realistic scheduling, supplier selection, specification, progress and factory acceptance tests, and three more.

By David McCarthy November 14, 2011

The following seven steps will help avoid common pitfalls in an automation project, and put the project on solid footing. Automation engineering, often the most labor-intensive part of a project, is unique among the engineering disciplines. It can be one of the hardest to gauge for quality and basic completeness until it is actually installed and operational on the targeted processing equipment and network systems. The ways to fail are many; the path to success is often narrow.

Step 1: Develop a realistic schedule and stick to it

A solid plan is a given, but don’t underestimate the importance of a schedule. The plan needs to include sufficient execution time for all project best practices, plus sufficient time to select the proper supplier. Often scheduling pressures may cause compression or elimination of best practices, which rarely ends with good results.

If the engineering development effort is 840 hours, and 3 people are expected to work effectively on the project simultaneously, then about 7 weeks of calendar time will be needed for development. (In this example, 840 hours divided by 40 hours/week divided by 3 people is 7 weeks.) Having a little contingency would be helpful. There comes a point of diminishing returns in the number of people working on an automation project. Putting 105 people on the same project will clearly not complete it in one 8-hour day. Physical installation of the new automation system needs to be carefully planned. If the project is being performed with an existing system, careful planning must be applied to the operational requirements of the existing system during the installation phase. Essentials include the frequency and duration of downtime windows, which largely drive what can be installed at any given time.

Complicating factors include whether portions of the old system need to remain operational over multiple downtime windows as various phases of the new project are brought online. In general, longer duration, yet shorter frequency downtime windows will drive down the installation costs since larger pieces of the facility can be brought online at once, but this must be balanced against the cost of the downtime window to the facility’s bottom line.

Step 2: Select a qualified supplier for the project

Selecting a qualified supplier sounds simple, but the best choice is not always obvious and needs careful vetting. Industry experience and solid working knowledge of the equipment to be controlled is essential for a successful project. Equally important is experience with the technology being deployed.

Once these two hard requirements are established with the supplier, look at the depth of resources in the organization. Ensure they have enough capacity to execute the project and support the project after installation is complete. Qualify whether the supplier has regular and recent experience with projects of similar size and scope of the planned project. Ensure your supplier has a mature and proven project execution process in place, including solid quality assurance practices. Check references on recent projects to ensure prior clients were satisfied. Picking the right partner is a crucial step to a successful project.

Step 3: Get off on the right foot with a proper specification

A functional specification is an essential step for any automation project. There are numerous ways to control any given set of processing equipment, and a multitude of possible functions that can be performed on such equipment. Take the time to generate and approve a proper functional specification, and there will be no surprises in the functionality of the system delivered.

A functional specification is the guide to all the operations of the processing equipment, interactions between people and the system, what data is exchanged with other systems, and what data is collected and reported on. Keep in mind the functional specification defines “what” is to be done, not “how” it is implemented. The “how” part comes with the technical system documentation.

The specification should be detailed enough to delineate all required functions in the system; permissives or interlocks per function; the operation and sequencing of each function down to the device level; and critical alarms and associated actions per function.

Operator interface specifications should include screen definitions on the human-machine interface (HMI); system security; device auto and manual control operations; system configuration and loop tuning; alarming system descriptions; and menu and navigational descriptions.

Data exchange, collection, and reporting should detail what data is shared among systems; the format and transport method of exchanged data; what data is collected and the frequency of collection; definitions of each report in the system; and layouts of each report in the system.

Step 4: Conduct progress checks and a formal factory acceptance test before installation

Review the project progress regularly with the supplier during the development phase. Depending on the duration and scope of your project, you may want a variety of interim progress deliverables reviewed.

There are many ways to gain demonstrable visibility into progress.

One method is to review your electrical package. Items like panel schematics; bill of material; field cable and conduit lists; and control panel/instrumentation deliveries are reasonably easy status checks. Software progress can be more difficult, but not impossible. Screen samples and layouts for the operator interfaces are easy to produce and check.

If there is a reporting system, asking to see operating interim reports for key areas can provide some insight into the state of completion of the work in progress software for that area. If there is an operator event tracking system, examining the operator action log files can further indicate what areas of the software are operational. More granular insights can be provided with mature quality assurance practices from the supplier. Signed audit forms indicating what tests have been done and by whom will provide further visibility into the software completion status.

In the end, there is nothing like a solid factory acceptance test (FAT) to bring it all together. A test plan should be developed based on the functional specification. Ensure all key areas of the system are demonstrated in detail during this test. The operator interface can monitor device and alarm status. Make sure the test includes normal operations and stress tests, such as inhibits and critical alarms. On large systems not every function can be tested in this manner, but a representative sample of each function can be tested. For a solid challenge to the system, agree with the supplier in advance which representative functions will be tested, but do not announce which instances of these functions that will be checked until the actual test.

Another important consideration is to schedule the factory acceptance test far enough in advance of the site installation date to allow corrective action time for any issues that arise during the test.

Step 5: Get everyone up to speed and use an installation acceptance checklist

Site installation is where the rubber meets the road. Proper planning, specification, and testing of the automation project prior to site installation, contributes significantly to a successful installation. Critical factors during this phase include basic logistics.

Ensure the supplier has access to the physical facility. This assumes all security and training requirements are met to work in the facility. All relevant personnel will need unencumbered access to the physical equipment being controlled. Support systems need to remain operational as required (boilers, power, air, etc.). Make sure all stakeholders are fully aware of these requirements in advance of any work performed on-site.

Site installation usually starts with I/O (input/output) verification of the new system. This would entail actuating devices individually to ensure proper wiring and operation of the device. It is often desirable to use maintenance support staff in this early phase of the physical checkout of the system components to help them gain advanced familiarity with the new controls equipment.

Upon readiness for functional testing, an installation checklist will ensure that the system operates in conformance with the functional specification. Depending on the size and scope of the project, this should entail some sort of formal written acceptance of each area of the new system as it is brought online.

Step 6: Train staff on the new system

Early in the site installation process, it is essential to train the staff on the new system. Such training includes operations training, maintenance training, and engineering training.

Operations training is typically divides between classroom-style presentation of the features in the new system and “hands-on” training directly with the new system. Maintenance training usually includes review of the electrical package, the physical control components in the system, and how to maintain and troubleshoot the components. Engineering training may entail review of the various software components in the system. Depending on the nature of the system being delivered, this may include traditional engineering reviews such as programmable logic controller (PLC) software, HMI configuration, and HMI scripting; or may also include traditional IT reviews, such as database schemas, network architecture, event detection, reporting layouts, and more.

Step 7: Keep things on track

Even with the best of testing and planning, an automation project of any substance is typically a large-scale engineering endeavor comprised of many thousands of lines of custom code in various programming environments. As such, a certain number of anomalies are a normal part of the installation process. Keep a detailed site log of any unexpected behavior of the system and maintain consistent communication with the supplier. Doing so ensures issues are tracked to resolution and that the project wraps up successfully. Following these seven steps will help avoid the most common pitfalls in properly executing an automation project and create a solid foundation for a successful implementation.

David McCarthy is president and chief executive officer of TriCore Inc.


Also read: 7 Bad Habits of Unsuccessful Projects https://bit.ly/dNpI1s

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