Choosing between automation solutions or enterprise integration projects

There are several key differences between automation solution and enterprise integration projects; the latter have several challenges that can be daunting for companies that aren't aware of the scope and testing required.

By Bill Zupon, Maverick Technologies March 22, 2016

At first glance, automation solutions (AS) and enterprise integration (EI) projects might seem similar, but they have some key fundamental differences that project managers need to be aware of. 

Automation solutions (typically referred to as control systems or automation) projects are usually comprised of programmable logic controllers (PLCs), distributed control systems (DCSs), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) or human-machine interface (HMI) applications and associated hardware.

Enterprise integration projects are manufacturing execution systems (MES) or custom software applications. Managing an EI project has increased challenges, and there are several key differences that companies should be aware of. 

Scope management — The first and biggest challenge is defining and maintaining a project scope. PLC or DCS projects typically are limited by the number of input/outputs (I/Os) and consequently, the control system scope is usually easier to identify and define. EI-based projects are generally not necessarily related to the number of I/O, but more than likely to a business need. Creating a good functional specification and detailed design document, including business use cases and requirements, will be extremely helpful to control the scope. It should also be required to have full approval of all design documents and then enact a moratorium whenever possible.

Schedule management — In an AS project, once the scope is defined, a schedule for the entire project is created and one would not expect a lot of modifications. EI projects are usually much more dynamic and flexibility will need to be incorporated into the project planning. A typical method to increase flexibility is to use an Agile method of development. Agile projects are executed using small incremental iterations. These iterations, or sprints, are usually completed in a couple of weeks and produce a working product or functionality.

Each sprint is planned according to priorities and completion to date. This technique allows for greater flexibility to manage change and predict the results at the end of each sprint. Another suggestion would be to use development management tools such as team foundation server (TFS) that are more suited toward software development, than other traditional PM products such as MS Project.

Location, location, location — A controls system project will usually be much smaller in terms of physical scope. It would be very rare for the controller, HMI and I/O not to be located within the same physical site. On the other hand, EI projects are much more likely to be multi-site deployments. For example, a company may have an enterprise system such as SQL, SAP, Oracle, MES layer, and control layer equipment to interface with. The control layer and MES may be collocated, but typically the enterprise layer is in a central corporate location. If this is the case, additional considerations such as network security restrictions, increased travel requirements, multiple deployment schedules, coordinated startups, etc., must be taken into account.

Testing — Due to the large number of integrations to other systems and the nature of custom software code development, the testing will be much more extensive than a typical project. At a minimum, a good testing plan will include unit testing of all code, functional testing, thorough integration testing and finally, comprehensive end to end testing including all functional business requirements.

Deployments — EI projects will most likely be a multi-site deployment and require much more planning and coordination than a typical stand-alone control project. Accordingly, another challenge with a software type deployment is an increased number of resources that must be coordinated due to the large number of integrations. A PLC project may require operations personnel, control engineers, and maybe I&E personnel.

An EI project will still require all of those, but also network, database, enterprise and software development resources. With the addition of this added complexity of coordination, it is also more important to maintain good release notes. You will also want to gain the appropriate approvals by plant personnel given the higher risk of impacting other information technology (IT) systems such as inventory and financial.

Budget management — Of course, all of the points mentioned above will add some cost to a project. In order to properly set and control the project budget successfully, it will be critical to identify and estimate all of these costs during the project planning.

Being aware of some of the challenges between different types of project will help make the next project be more successful. 

This post was written by Bill Zupon. Bill is a project manager at Maverick Technologies, a leading automation solutions provider offering industrial automation, strategic manufacturing, and enterprise integration services for the process industries. Maverick delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, business process optimization and more.

Maverick Technologies is a CSIA member as of 3/22/2016