Industrial Modernization Doesn’t Have to Be Hard

Lead Your Facility into the Modern World with a Main Automation Contractor

The industrial world as we know it is changing – fast. Legacy system obsolescence, cybersecurity vulnerabilities and innovative smart technologies, such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), digital twin/thread, cloud and mobile computing, open architecture, advanced data analytics, and more, are driving change.

Some manufacturers are already well on their modernization journey, while others find the prospect of updating or migrating systems daunting and are still relying on traditional methods that run on legacy computing power. Without compatible systems to take advantage of the latest smart technologies, a manufacturer’s product quality and process efficiency will decrease and that coveted competitive edge will be lost when customer demands aren’t met.

For many manufacturers, change is hard but moving forward is the only option. Whether it’s support for a new process unit, a major automation upgrade or migration project, or even a significant maintenance effort, many companies are realizing they simply can’t handle these projects on their own. They are wondering whether to engage an external third-party consultant – namely, a main automation contractor (MAC). The decision to choose a MAC largely comes down to the scale of the project and a facility’s functional requirements and resource bandwidth.

Few, if any, manufacturers have internal construction or project management resources to handle all but the smallest projects. The costs associated with such staffing makes it impractical to support the skill levels and numbers of people necessary to execute capital and larger maintenance projects. Also, manufacturers often don’t have the engineering resources capable of planning and designing a major project as most in-house engineers are likely swamped just keeping existing facilities operating. In these instances, facilities can certainly benefit from bringing in a MAC.

Benefits of an Effective MAC

A MAC can apply their specialized resources to execute small or large projects to reduce risk, optimize system productivity and improve quality. Automation service providers who use the term MAC, include:

  • Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) or automation vendors
  • Engineering, procurement, construction (EPC) companies
  • Systems integrators or owner’s representatives

Each of these providers has their own strengths and weaknesses (see Five Key Factors to a Successful Migration Project), and their automation project expertise and experience varies, which can directly impact the project costs. For instance, a lack of knowledge or familiarity with certain aspects of a vendor-specific platform can result in incompatibility issues and changes being made later in a project, adding significant costs and causing delays.

The most-effective MAC is an automation solutions provider who takes a holistic approach and functions as a true consultative partner working alongside the internal team from the earliest phases of an automation and control modernization project. They engage the right crew mix for the job, interact with all key stakeholders to identify project pros and cons, and help standardize existing documentation, which avoids duplicating work across multiple sites. This more efficient approach reduces engineering time and increases productivity.

A MAC also leverages their broad knowledge of the latest technologies to join many disparate automation and electrical aspects of the project into a cohesive whole. They coordinate multiple vendors on site and help manage every phase of a project – from the initial upfront planning and design concepts to the implementation.

A main benefit in working with a MAC is their extensive experience with automation projects. A facility may execute a handful of automation projects a year at most, but an experienced MAC will execute scores of such projects each year. A MAC’s invaluable experience in providing a variety of services and solutions gives them a unique edge in handling projects, including benefits like:

  • Being an owner’s representative to all parties
  • Bringing an unbiased external perspective on systems
  • Handling a complex automation scope
  • Comparing and recommending multiple platform options
  • Defining distributed control system (DCS) equipment bill of materials
  • Developing DCS equipment and configuration functional specs
  • Developing piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs) and I/O lists
  • Ensuring regulatory compliance to standards and other guidelines
  • Managing safety instrumented system (SIS) lifecycle and reducing risk
  • Planning and executing commissioning and startup
  • Providing ongoing operational support and sustaining services

An effective MAC also keeps the project’s design on track:

  • Aligns business drivers and high-level design decisions – An extra set of eyes can verify the ability of the project to deliver its expected business benefits
  • Integrates manufacturing execution systems (MES) and business systems – Connecting to the business systems should not be an afterthought
  • Evaluates automation vendor capabilities – The main automation system vendors must be evaluated critically to verify they can perform the desired functions
  • Maintains integration across multiple platforms – Automation systems can become piecemeal without intentional efforts to keep them integrated
  • Supervises control functionality – Designing effective HMIs, alarm strategies, safety systems and other critical areas of an automation system requires constant thought and careful effort

As construction manager, a MAC drives the project schedule:

  • Allocates construction resources optimally – Since the number of contractors and tradespeople are not infinitely flexible, keeping them focused on the most important tasks is critical
  • Monitors progress across all process areas – Closely ensures there are no gaps in the schedule, particularly for those items on the critical project path
  • Ensures crew mix flexibility – The demand for technicians and construction labor ebbs and flows, sometimes daily; it is important to balance the workers during slow and busy periods
  • Aggressively drives testing simultaneously with construction – Testing of electrical installations and wiring should be done immediately to verify it is correct before contractors leave the site
  • Makes activities more parallel – If several actions can be performed at the same time, it collapses the schedule and allows the project to finish more quickly
  • Tracks project progress in real time – Effective construction managers keep up to date on a regularly to avoid losing touch with any aspect of the project

As a project nears completion, commissioning and startup services become critical, and at this point even a well-thought-out effort can get into trouble. Moving into this phase, large numbers of people are involved, and everyone is anxious to have the new process running. It is not a time to be tying up loose ends that should have been finished weeks before.

If testing has not been done throughout the construction, problems arise and need to be fixed. Everything can grind to a halt because a pump isn’t wired correctly, and those key people watching and waiting are now wondering why such problems were not fixed long ago.

Similarly, if some loops have not been checked or field instruments remain uncalibrated, the process slows down, or it can send technicians off on tangents trying to understand why some part of the process doesn’t work correctly. Commissioning and startup should proceed smoothly because checking and verifying functions should happen throughout the construction process – and this is not always the case.

Extended Benefits: Sustain and Maintain

The project is finished. Many companies view the completion of a project as an end in itself. The “keys” are turned over to the facility owner. All the people brought in to work on various elements return home. The new equipment is left in the hands of the operators and the facility’s engineering and maintenance staff. The question now becomes, can the facility sustain all the project improvements?

When starting a major project, most companies are willing to admit they need help launching and completing it, but fewer acknowledge a need for help with the day-to-day operations on an ongoing basis. Few companies have the numbers of operators, engineers and maintenance people they really need. Many have limited bandwidth to handle only the most pressing production issues. Small operational setbacks rarely get the attention they should, and one by one, they accumulate and reduce the gains made by all the project improvements. So why not keep on a strategic number of MAC personnel to sustain those gains?

Most companies find there’s an advantage to keeping MAC project personnel available to work with the in-house team long after the project is finished. The MAC team has a strong sense of how the facility works and what it needs to improve performance. Even the improvements made in the most recent project can be improved on once everything is in full operation.

A project’s lifecycle should be continuous as today’s improvements fuel future changes. This concept improves and builds facility performance and profitability, instead of allowing the facility to deteriorate and go back to status quo. Maintaining those gains requires ongoing effort as work processes change and operators get used to the new characteristics. Companies unable or unwilling to make the effort to sustain improvements can find themselves sliding back, losing much of the benefit made possible from the project.

The Path Forward

If a forward-thinking MAC is required, manufacturers must make sure in advance the MAC is not just going to shake hands on a job well done and leave the facility. Few automation vendors or even traditional integrators have the flexibility, resources or the inclination to commit people to an open-ended relationship where there is potential to see the amount of work go up and down as needs change.

Continuous improvement and support should be discussed in the early planning stages. At that stage, a MAC can plan ahead and assign key people to stay on once the project is completed. It not only helps build a very strong relationship but also seals a true partnership built on mutual benefits over the long term.

Most companies are willing to accept the challenge to move forward and modernize. All they need is to join with the right MAC – an automation solutions partner who can make improved facility performance on a daily basis a reality. Take a leap of faith. The MAC experts who helped guide the modernization project from the start can continue to navigate the path forward into the modern world.