Automation projects have taken on the complexity and difficulty of doing a Rubik's Cube while hanging upside down in Houdini's water tank. The demands of everything-connected mixed with the need to create agility, and the underlying stress to make sure the system integration is optimal requires special handling. To meet these hurdles, new tools and procedures have rushed in to rescue project teams.
The most significant emerging contrivance may be virtualization: the ability to work out every minute detail before machines are hooked together, before any code is sealed. New ways of creating flexible teams that are dispersed around the world, with just-in-time experts, bring agility, speed, and cost savings to projects. Automation vendors are stepping in with pre-connected technology that can carve away at the endless months of system integration. And once the project is tested, validated, and optimized, it can be lifted and deployed to an additional site on another continent.
Seeking Competency and Discipline
One of the major challenges project managers face is the declining skill sets of personnel. "There is a real challenge around competency," Khris Kammer, information partner and competency manager for Rockwell Automation, told Design News. "It's a problem. People need to build up their skills on software and infrastructure very quickly."
Kammer added, "Many project teams are distributed, and that exacerbates the competency struggle." He noted that software tools have evolved to help. "Some software tools such as Microsoft Project have been developed for project management itself. That was the tool of choice when I was a project manager."
Staying on track through the life of a project is another trial. "Traditional project management practices are predicated on discipline. You need to develop a detailed project plan, follow the plan as closely as possible, and keep it up to date," Mark Homrich, from Teamcenter Project Management at Siemens PLM, told Design News. There's a significant payoff for organizations that practice discipline, he said: "You get better cost control, better forecasting of completion dates, better resource planning, and better visibility into potential issues."
But Homrich said that with discipline comes a cost of countless hours to develop the plan, update the plan, and revise it with rigorous change-control mechanisms. "Project management has evolved so that it provides focus, direction, and objectives to project teams but with greater flexibility, lower overhead costs, and higher degrees of responsiveness to changing business conditions," he said.
The Sweet Spot of Agile Complexity
Speed and agility are the buzzwords for project management. Gone are the days when a project moved along fixed milestones. "Among the continuous improvement tools used in project management, the biggest change came with the introduction of the agile programming concept," Gary Kirckof, system engineering group manager at Beckhoff Automation ,told Design News. "In agile programming, the priority of project goals can be continually shifted, and even the goals themselves can change."
The benefit of this is to make it easy for a team to adapt to new information and when new needs arise. "This shift is not without some challenges," noted Kirckof. "Agile programming is difficult for traditional project management techniques to handle, as the work is performed in design cycles rather than on a fixed timeline."
Projects are also moving faster. Homrich noted that the speed at which project teams must consume, digest, and utilize technical and other information has grown significantly. To cope with this, project teams are putting a greater emphasis on virtual collaboration, virtual product validation, and virtual manufacturing simulation. "Ideas must be proposed, assessed, tested and either accepted, rejected, or modified much more quickly in today's project environments," he said.
Creating the Right-Size Just-in-Time Team
In this environment, software tools are getting deployed for both training and team collaboration. "We work with system integrators in a virtual training environment that provides cloud-based images [and] in which trainees do labs," said Kammer. The training labs are combined with screen-sharing tools and teleconferencing to create an effective training experience.
He noted that subject experts are in demand, and they tend to be dispersed geographically, yet their engagement is only required at specific points in the project. "Subject matter experts are suited for the just-in-time participation. We bring them in just in time, grabbing the resources we need just when we need them," said Kammer. He noted that while some team members need to be dedicated to the project, they can do some of their work remotely. "It doesn't replace on-site, but there are a number of roles, especially in software development, that don't' require a constant on-site presence."
'Scrum' Meets Collaboration Tools
Project managers are now using a system called "scrum" that uses software to create flexible project management. "Scrum was developed to manage agile projects, taking a much different approach from the traditional sequential approach to problem solving," said Kirckof. "A key principle of scrum is flexibility and the recognition that the requirements of the project can and will often change during the development process."
Part of the goal of scrum is speed, and a scrum plan often includes team "sprints." "The focus is to maximize the engineering team's ability to deliver quickly and respond to problems or changes as they arise," said Kirckof. "Scrum is a game-changer when implementing an agile programming project management system, since it is infinitely better equipped to deal with unforeseen circumstances and mid-cycle development changes."
New collaborative software tools are providing additional agility and speed to project management. "Tools for collaboration play an important role in project management, streamlining the process of allowing multiple people to work on the same project at the same time," said Kirckof. "Examples include Git, Subversion, Bit Bucket, Source Tree, and Team Foundation Server. Automation vendors have made great strides in integrating and enabling the use of these collaboration tools."
Virtualization Gets Real and Portable
The use of virtualization is another major step forward in project management. Plants can now be tested, validated, and optimized before any machines are actually delivered to the facility. "When virtualization came into play, it was a big game-changer," said Kammer. "From an operational or project management standpoint, you can take an environment and replicate it so you have the development environment as well as the test environment and production environment."
Virtualization also lets project teams experiment with the plan before making any immovable commitments. "You can do it in a safe way and test it out," said Kammer. "You have the ability to wipe it clear." He noted that the team gets a snapshot that can be tested and altered before it's put into production.
Another virtue of virtualization is portability. A manufacturing system can be fully virtualized, tested, and optimized at one location. Then it can be shifted to another location. "If you've built an environment for one plant, you can easily take it to another one. You can create a cloud-based virtual environment and use it for more than one site," said Kammer. "It can be distributed across the enterprise."
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Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 15 years, 12 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.