Building a solid foundation for an automation project

Engineers should always start with a solid foundation when it comes to developing a manufacturing automation project.

By Nicholas Imfeld February 14, 2022
Courtesy: Cincinnati Incorporated

Before doing anything on an automation project, no matter how great (or small) the task, engineers should always start with a solid foundation. In the manufacturing automation and information system world, that foundation is design.

In recent years, due to tight budgets, shrinking engineering staff, and short schedules, the far too common temptation is to skip the design phase and jump full force into the development. This is especially true when someone on the team argues, “The process is simple;” “we’ve done this before,” or “we are just copying that one over there.” Similar to someone promising, “that pile of sand will hold up the house,” engineers need to resist this temptation and embrace the foundational design phase. Even a little bit of project design planning will go a long way.

There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to design. If the change is small, the design should also be small. If the project is large, then the design should be scaled appropriately. The goal of design isn’t simply to check off a box, but to slow down and think about what you are actually trying to accomplish. After all, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit nothing.” The design phase lets the engineer pause and think about what they’re are aiming for. And it will be worthless if you don’t accurately take notes about the discussions.

Writing down thoughts is critical. Engineers have ideas about how this project should go, but they may not yet know how to implement it technically. The key aspect of the design is to leveraging their or the system integrator (SI) partner’s years of experience doing the types of things that you envision, take those concepts and apply the technology footprint of today, mix in the future trends of tomorrow and apply it to the project’s needs.

From that point, the engineering team can lean in, look at the problem from all angles, assess what needs to happen to make that vision a reality, and document it for you. This comprehensive approach provides the strong basis to know exactly what’s going to happen and gives you the opportunity to review the finished design to confirm the project’s needs and vision were captured.

When there is an agreed upon design and alignment on the goal and vision, then it is full speed ahead on development because you’ve established a clear picture and have a game plan for overcoming any obstacles that you may encounter. This means that the project doesn’t have to be slowed down to make decisions about those obstacles along the way.

The design document is a valuable tool to have during development. It is referenced often to ensure the project is on the correct path. The design documentation is also the foundation for the system’s test documents as it’s an easy exercise to transform the requirements into Acceptance Test protocols (which is the next critical step in a project – but more on that later).

Whether it’s one page, done in an afternoon, or hundreds of pages done over months, having a comprehensive and thorough design phase at the beginning of any project is the right (and safest) way to create a solid foundation that will pay dividends later while building the project.

– This originally appeared on Avanceon’s website. Avanceon is a CFE Media and Technology content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

Nicholas Imfeld
Author Bio: Nicholas Imfeld, principal engineer, Avanceon