The importance of client reviews

A few simple discussions with and demonstrations for your client at strategic times can prevent a world of problems and keep your project on track.

By MAVERICK Technologies control system engineering team January 22, 2013

This is a continuation of an earlier article which discussed the importance of specifications in engineering services projects. That article described the importance of good specifications to define a project’s scope of work. This posting continues from there, with advice intended to help developers continue the good work that began with specifications.

This post is not intended to give advice to project managers on how to run a project. We are not project managers – we are engineers who have worked with many clients on many project teams, with some experiences to share on the benefits of providing early-stage review of project development with your client.

Once project specifications are written or received and development is underway, it is wise to keep the client involved in the initial stages of development. That may seem obvious to some readers and completely unnecessary to others. After all, with good specifications in hand, shouldn’t the developers be sent off to their office caves to write code and draw screens un-disturbed?

No, not at all! Writing about control programming and operator interface graphics is a good starting point. But we all know that a picture is worth a thousand words. Several pictures, especially animated pictures, are worth many more words. And a live demonstration or webinar is close to priceless.

This post intends to reinforce a good engineering practice usually implemented by many, but skipped by some, during project development. Those tempted to take shortcuts should read on.

Our advice can be stated quite simply: review project development efforts with the client at an early stage, after the first few items are created, before creating more of them. This may seem obvious, but it does not always happen for a variety of reasons (often excuses) including schedule, budget, work habits, and past experiences.

Such a review can reveal a host of potential problems in the early stage of development when it is easy and inexpensive to make corrections, avoiding extensive rework later. During a screen review, the client can see and approve seemingly simple things like screen layout, device icons, color conventions, terminology, and typefaces. A program design review can also reveal differences of approach and control philosophy, operator capabilities, and data requirements.

For this discussion, let’s examine the development of control programming (logic) and operator displays (graphics) for a hypothetical tank farm project. In that application, many graphics and lots of logic will be needed to enable operators to control 25 tanks with associated agitators, transfer pumps, valves, sensors, and so on. In such an application, it is easy to see that many portions of screen and logic development will be repetitive. Efficient developers are very likely to develop items for the first tank, and then copy those items to create the rest of the tanks.

It is important for developers to pause after creating a set of screens and logic for the first tank. In our example tank farm application, a single-tank system should be completed. That small system can be demonstrated to the client to show how the system operates. Logic and operator interface for tank selection, filling, and discharging would be shown, as would alarms, screen colors, navigation, device control pop-ups (faceplates), data storage and display (trending), plus other automated and animated items.

To make your demonstration go smoothly, consider writing some simulation logic to work with your control software, using whatever is necessary to bypass any missing I/O. Any time spent creating simulation logic would not be time wasted. Such simulation gives your client a test drive to experience the look and feel of the new user environment.

Any meeting or webinar held to review the functionality of the system should include not only the client’s design or process engineers, but also the individuals who will use the system, such as production and maintenance personnel.

Such a review would help identify situations that may not be written into the specification and requirement documents by the client’s engineers. For example:

• In our hypothetical tank farm system, operators watching the demonstration might ask how they would pause a tank-discharge operation, part way through, to take a product sample. If logic is written to pump until empty, with no pause button on the operator interface, the need for a correction is obvious.

• Others watching the demo might ask where the operator enters batch and lot number information for their record-keeping needs. This may be the first time the developers hear that a database interface is needed, something often assumed by client management and off the radar of PLC logic developers.

It’s best to identify and resolve such issues before graphics and control logic are replicated for the remaining 24 tanks and equipment!

That last part about avoiding rework highlights the financial consequences of skipping the initial demonstration step in a project’s development cycle. On a fixed-price contract, that can be a budget buster if development goes too far before issues are caught and fixed.

Once an initial demonstration is given to the client and all resulting issues resolved, development can resume for the remainder of the system. For our example, the other 24 tanks.

Reviews at the beginning and critical points along the way can benefit the project in several ways:

• Easier acceptance by the client at the time of final system testing. The client has already seen most things before formal testing (FAT or SAT).

• Stakeholders who have provided feedback will have a higher level of buy-in when they see you have incorporated features they requested.

• Fewer surprises during installation and start-up.

• Higher likelihood the project will be profitable for the developer due to reduced re-work.

The thoughts expressed here are not new. But they are often overlooked, which is why we took the time to write this. It’s a reminder for you today, and can provide backup tomorrow when someone thinks that testing is not needed, or costs too much.

Providing an initial demonstration for any project is easy to justify, and risky to skip. Performing that demonstration highlights your organization’s professionalism. It shows you understood and implemented the specification, which helps build the client’s confidence in your organization.

This post was written by the control system engineering team at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading system integrator providing industrial automation, operational support and control systems engineering services in the manufacturing and 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, and business process optimization. The company provides a full range of automation and controls services – ranging from PID controller tuning and HMI programming to serving as a main automation contractor. Additionally MAVERICK offers industrial and technical staffing services, placing on-site automation, instrumentation and controls engineers.