Systems integrators add to the success of automation projects
By William Pollock, PE
The large manufacturing expansion underway is driving a surge of plant upgrades and capacity expansions that manufacturers are understaffed to implement. Most manufacturers have cut staff to the bone, so that maintenance people can only carry out minimum levels of plant maintenance and in-plant engineering. Because of this, many companies trying to engineer or manage large upgrades or plant expansions by themselves are unsuccessful and frequently over budget. At times, they do not get production ready until far beyond the planned start-up date. Independent systems integrators are fundamental to making these projects successful.
Manufacturers are using professional system integration companies for plant upgrades and expansions with Control Systems Integrators Association (CSIA) members. In 1994, we were founding members of CSIA, the professional trade association of more than 600 control systems integrators with activities including certification, annual conferences, industry-specific business insurance, and an industry best practices manual. For the most part, members are independent organizations that use their automation and project management expertise to design and integrate manufacturing lines for industrial clients.
Manufacturers using CSIA systems integrators improve the probability of project success because integrators:
- have specialized knowledge of manufacturing software and current industry standards
- are trained in the implementation of capital projects and have project management systems for effective time and expense management
- have decades-long industrial experience that helps bring innovative solutions
System integrators eliminate the stress and risk of putting project burdens on the plant staff and provide manufacturers with low-risk, successful applications of automation technology.
Lessons learned by others
We have seen many examples of projects undertaken by our clients that were not successful. A company in the food production market decided to use its in-house production engineering team to work with a design-build firm to build a $400 million greenfield plant. The production engineers were so busy doing their regular engineering jobs that they had no bandwidth to undertake the additional responsibilities of designing a completely new facility. The food production company blindly relied on the design-build firm that wanted to improve its bottom line in the build aspect of the project.
Without proper oversight by a dedicated engineering staff, the design-build firm did not adequately engineer the facility. There were many deficiencies in the utilities, as well as in the structural integrity of the building. Other shortcomings were caused because the facility was built in the New York State snow belt, and the design-build firm was centered, and serviced clients, in Georgia. There was no engineering for elements like snow loading on the roof, roof lines that allowed more than 10-foot accumulations of drifting snow, freezing condensate lines from roof-top HVAC units, or planning for winter snow removal from parking lots.
To keep the project on budget, the client compromised the specifications of the facility and paid the price in loss of production when outdoor temperatures were extreme, or certain production runs, or combination of production runs, demanded utilities greater than the newly installed infrastructure could provide. Had the manufacturer or the design firm collaborated with a systems integrator, many of the shortcomings would have been identified in design or during design reviews, and problems avoided.
A dairy company finished a $2 million plant expansion using local vendors and contractors. It installed new and used equipment that was sourced online. No preliminary engineering or detailed engineering was carried out to complete the project. Unfortunately, the project was completed so far behind schedule that it missed the market for the product it was manufacturing. The company ended up with an overbudget project, and production significantly less than planned. Its attempt to save money caused a very low return on investment and a failed and lagging facility.
A chemical plant decided to do an expansion. Its initial plan was to manage the project management itself and have outside consultants and engineers do specific tasks. Its project management was ineffective, and the project went over budget. The initial project scope and definition were underengineered and because of the underdefined and incorrect scope, there were additional costs and delays. Ultimately, the project cost more than it should have, and production and return on investment began much later than they should have.
Often the manufacturing staff does not have the time, resources, or expertise to carry out the project. At times they are not equipped to adequately define scope and estimate the costs. Most of the members of the CSIA work with clients using a gated project methodology. If a company comes to us at the beginning of the project, we can help it create a piping and instrumentation drawing, as well as a preliminary project cost. It can use this cost as a basis to get capital funding approval in the company. Once approved, we can complete detail design and engineering, write automation software, procure equipment, install, and commission the new line. Outsourcing project engineering and project management to an independent systems integrator can be a great way to leverage internal resources and drive manufacturing forward.