Automation Project Justification (How to Sell the Goods!)

Automation Project Justification (How to Sell the Goods!)

Back when I was a plant automation engineer, one of the most challenging and sometimes frustrating parts of the job was trying to justify what I knew were worthwhile automation projects. Despite knowing they were valuable, convincing company leadership that those projects deserved funding ahead of all the other competing projects was a difficult endeavor! What does it take to successfully sell your automation project to company management? Regardless the type of project (e.g., migration of a legacy system, improved process control, information integration, or other), here are a few steps to help develop the justification you need to put you on the path to success both from a business and professional standpoint.

1. Understand the Process

Thoroughly understanding your company’s project approval process is a critical first step. Project approval requirements vary widely from company to company, and specific requirements can change from year to year. For example, some companies place a “hurdle” for payback justification where only projects with less than a certain time for payback (say less than 2 years) are considered for funding and that threshold can vary depending on the financial outlook for a given year.

It is also critical to understand all the submittal requirements for securing approval. What level of up-front engineering is required? What deliverables in what format are needed to accompany the funding request? How accurate does the cost estimate need to be? What are the deadlines for submittal? How does the approval process flow, and how long does it take? Knowing the answers to these questions will allow you to prepare proper documentation in time for the project to even be considered.

2. Cater to Your Audience

Who are the stakeholders with a say in getting your project approved? What goals are they being judged against, and what key initiatives are they trying to accomplish? What are the company objectives for the year? What sort of justification would make your project stand out relative to the other projects competing for company funding? Knowing the answers to these questions will give you a much better idea on how to develop a justification that appeals to the folks responsible for approving your project. Once you have made a first pass at the justification, set up meetings with individual stakeholders to explain the project and your proposed justification to get their feedback on what will have the most appeal. This also has the benefit of getting stakeholders familiar and more comfortable with the project you are trying to get approved.

3. Customize Your Justification

One of the really cool aspects of automation is that no other component has such a pervasive effect on production performance. A plant literally cannot operate well with a poor-performing automation system, and conversely, a well-performing automation system can have a huge impact on improving operations. Once you have accomplished the second step of knowing your stakeholders and what is important to them, you can focus on identifying and communicating the project benefits that affect the exact metrics they care most about.

Instead of focusing the justification on problems with your existing system, develop the justification around the business outcomes that your company is trying to achieve. Here are some common business outcomes resulting from automation projects:

  • Increased production volume
  • Improved product quality
  • Lower costs
  • Better efficiency
  • Enhanced regulatory compliance
  • Reduced risk
  • Improved reliability
  • Greater production agility

For example, say you are trying to justify the modernization of an obsolete control system. That old system is probably having component failures which are increasing over time. You might be tempted to justify the modernization based on the increased cost of replacement parts, but your stakeholder research reveals that your company has an initiative to improve first-pass product quality. Therefore, instead of focusing on reduced parts cost, determine how the component failures are reducing product quality and highlight that improvement in the project justification. Not that you don’t also use the benefit of lower cost as justification – claim everything you can. But make sure to highlight the benefits in the areas your stakeholders are most concerned with.

Go Forth and Conquer

By gaining a thorough understanding of your company’s project approval process along with the wants and needs of the various approvers, you can develop a justification that will put your automation project in the best position to secure approval. This attention to detail and upfront planning provides key information that allows your company to select projects most aligned with strategic goals and make the smartest use of their investment dollars. In turn, this also helps you professionally by reducing frustration and showcasing your ability to secure spending on projects that can really make a difference!


Lee Swindler ( is an Industry Manager with MAVERICK Technologies. Lee has 31 years of automation industry experience, including 21 years in manufacturing and 10 years on the engineering services side. He holds a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification along with being a TÜV Certified Functional Safety Engineer (FSEng). Lee has a B.S.E.E degree from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.

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