Back from the grave

By the 1990s concurrent engineering was all but dead as a lack of interest from users sent it to an early grave. But now it's been resurrected, and this time we may actually need it.

By Rich Merritt, Senior Technical Editor


N THE 1980s, A NEW CONCEPT WAS CREATED to help companies manage projects in the modern age. Several companies coined marketing terms such as Concurrent Engineering (CCE) and Collaborative Engineering in an attempt to redefine project engineering and sell engineers and plant operations managers reports, software, consultancies and other must-have services. But its time on this earth was short lived. By the 1990s CCE was all but dead as lack of interest from users sent it to an early grave. But now it’s back, and the thing is, we may actually need it this time.

Down but Not Out
CCE can mean different things to different people depending on the application. It can be applied to building a process plant, designing a product, achieving better quality control (QC), or developing stronger relationships with customers. In the process control world, CCE means involving multiple people, organizations and/or companies in a control system project. For an engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) company, CCE goes beyond control systems to include the rest of the plant’s operations and functions, from design and construction to startup.

Walter Driedger, a control engineer for EPC companies, dismissed the CCE trend faster than a pop-up ad for Viagra. “I never heard that concurrent engineering was an ‘in’ thing. In my 30 years in process control, I have always worked in multi-disciplinary teams—about one-third of the time, it was with a multi-company team,” says Driedger.

In the 1980s, the vision of electronic concurrent engineering was popularized, but it was the software, hardware and web that were not ready."
For a time, remembers Chris Conklin, a control engineer with Dow Corning, Midland, Mich., CCE was popular. “In the 1980s through the 1990s there was a real push to compress the project scope, engineering, design and construction schedules, as no one could spend money fast enough. The Internet was going to rule the world with lightning speed and everything was e-this and e-that.”

As the new millennium approached, CCE faded from view. It didn’t completely disappear, people just stopped talking about it. After all, many engineers with common sense like Driedger, were able to accomplish the same thing without having to label it with a fancy name.

Driedger explains that project teams have always worked “concurrently” on big projects. “EPC companies, once they become large enough to have more than one significant project, are all organized according to a matrix structure. That means that every one is a member of a department. Once a project is officially released, a project team is created by drawing people from the various departments. Team members on larger projects may come from different companies.” Driedger says for a large refinery project, a team might consist of members drawn from the client's organization, from a major local engineering company, and from an international engineering technology company.

Such CCE project teams are typically used on projects in the $500-million range and up. “This works well, as long as all play nicely,” quips Driedger. “It has been my experience that teams containing DCS vendors often have trouble leaving their previous rivalries aside.”

Jay Kapadia, product manager for the Simulation Business Line, Invensys Process Solutions, Austin, Texas, says it was once possible for all the work to be done in one place. “Normally, in engineering design work, engineering teams from various offices work concurrently and collaboratively on the project,” he explains.

“The task force approach that became popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s gathered all the relevant engineering groups–process, mechanical, electrical, instrumentation, structural, and so on–together on the same office floor and they worked closely to get the job done. Specialty work was handed off to vendors and managed manually. Today, this is more and more difficult as the members of the team are not co-located for a variety of reasons.”

What’s also happening lately is that the makeup of project teams is changing. “Automation used to be a simple black-and-white trade,” says John Seaver, president of Cascade Controls, a systems integrator in Tinley Park, Ill. “It is now tied inextricably into a business’ overall IT infrastructure. This evolution has necessitated much more up-front thought and consideration into the development, design and implementation of engineering and automation projects.”

Because of all this, manufacturers today are requiring a more rounded project team that includes IT people with the process engineers and control experts.


Comos FEED front-end engineering software converts a simulation into a Process Flow Diagram and a conceptual 3D model, and shares it with other users.

Distance may complicate the smooth running of project teams. Today, a project team is likely to be scattered throughout the world. “Collaborative engineering has become significantly important recently due to the shortage of skilled engineers, geographically dispersed sites, and the Internet,” explains Rashesh Mody, chief technology officer at Wonderware. “For example, enterprise customers are utilizing competence centers around the world based on their expertise. Web technology has definitely improved communication tools to achieve distributed development.”

When Fluor designed a gas processing plant, for example, it involved 50 engineers in six offices in the U.S. and Europe, all of whom had to work concurrently while sharing the same process data and knowledge.

“Certainly the diversity in location and culture has caused operational coordination problems, but these have been fixtures in the development world for more than 10 years,” says Paul Butler, vice president, Technology, Honeywell Process Solutions ( “Access to the best talent in any field, independent of location or affiliation, is key to developing more intelligent and capable products and services.”

Finally, not using CCE can be expensive. A study by the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) says that $15.8 billion is wasted annually in the capital facilities industry. Of these costs, two-thirds are borne by owners and operators, who incur the costs during ongoing facility operation and maintenance, long after projects are completed.

NIST says these costs come from the lack of interoperability in most plants–that is, the inability to manage and communicate product and project data between collaborating firms and within the company’s design, construction, maintenance and business process systems. Such inefficiencies include manual re-entry of data, duplication of business functions, and the continued reliance on paper-based information management systems. For example, trying to find the PLC documentation for the valve sequencing logic that was developed five years ago by a vendor who has gone out of business, oftentimes proves to be a major stumbling block for paper-based systems.

In other words, get organized. Get rid of the paper. Put everything into electronic files. Communicate better. Work together. And CCE can help.

Improved Tools Make CCE Work
One reason that CCE didn’t really catch on in the past two decades is that no reliable tools were available to make it work. “In the early days of collaborative engineering, there wasn’t much of an emphasis on tools,” says Andre Babineau, director of Project Solutions Management at Invensys Foxboro, Foxboro, Mass. “It was more a matter of having as much presence as possible at the customer site. This was certainly beneficial and contributed much to the working relationship.”

“In the 1980s, the vision of electronic concurrent engineering was popularized, but it was the software, hardware, and Web that were not ready," says Tom Greer, industry analyst at Intergraph Process, Power & Marine, Madison, Ala. “And neither were people and the work processes they were doing. Cost/billing structures were based around hours and drawings produced, and many business models were constructed around traditional paper-based and CAD work processes. These models have persisted even in LST [Lump-Sum Turnkey] engineering, design and construction.”

“The concurrent engineering concept has been around for many years,” adds Kapadia. “But in this case, the technology trailed the concept. Products that were created to support the concept were too difficult to use productively. I'd say that the concept was placed on the back burner for a few years with some isolated cases where individuals continued to champion it.”

In recent years, CAD software companies have been making tools for collaborative design. With some CAD systems, design teams around the globe can sit in on a web-based conference, review designs, make changes, and discuss the changes and run models and simulations on the changes, all in real time via the Internet.


"Language and language skills are fundamental, but you also must take time to understand the cultural differences.
Even though CCE has been around for a while, many process design tools are not as up to date as CAD systems. “The existing generation of plant design tools has many weaknesses, including constraints to reducing project schedules and optimizing designs, because this software imposes limitations on how work is organized and executed,” explains Bob Jones, vice president of Intergraph Process, Power & Marine. “The software itself forces many design activities to proceed in a series of steps rather than in parallel steps. Also, the existing tools are more difficult to use, require higher infrastructure costs, do not facilitate efficient global engineering, and provide little value over the lifecycle of the plant.”

Tools have come a long way. Users of Comos FEED from Invensys can convert their simulation into a Process Flow Diagram (PFD) and thereafter into a conceptual 3D model, and share it with other users. 

Many of the design and engineering tools available today use the Web to collaborate with team members.

Jonathan Marshall, a project engineer at Bechtel in San Francisco, says we are finally leaving the paper chase behind. “The industry execution methodology is migrating from a document-centric approach to a data-centric approach as enabled by data warehouse software technology,” he says. “Today it is rare to see work performed in one location by a contiguous team of engineers.”

Ground-Up Collaboration
Concurrent engineering all starts at the plant level, where the local team works on systems design, control system configuration and software development. From there, it radiates outward, taking in all the other project team members around the world. It is vital to coordinate the work of all engineers and programmers, even those working side by side.

“Most programming methodologies still mimic the assembly line of old, where the system layout drawing is created, then the electrical design is mapped, then the application code is written,” says Ron Bliss, Logix/NetLinx software marketing manager, Rockwell Automation. “It’s an extremely time-consuming, linear process, with programming costs consuming up to 80% of a control system’s budget.”

As you might expect, control equipment companies are certainly aware of the need for CCE, and each has a solution. “In the past the question kept recurring of how to integrate the work of the different programmers in a single project,” notes Graham Harris, president of Beckhoff Automation ( “Up to now, this was only possible by comparing, importing and copying. Our TwinCAT Engineering Interface (ENI) enables tasks to be coordinated via a source code management system.”

Rockwell Automation does something similar. "RSLogix 5000 software and Logix5000 controllers support concurrent engineering with programming techniques such as tag aliases, multiple data scopes, built-in and user-defined structures, arrays and application import/export capabilities,” explains Bliss. “These tools allow applications to be created with less effort and completion of projects in a shorter duration.”

Tag aliases are becoming a primary contributor to concurrent engineering, says Bliss. “In the past, a programmer responsible for writing code sat in limbo until every last sensor was assigned a physical address. Now, with tag aliases, programmers can write code independent of electrical connection assignments.”

Separation Anxiety
While concurrent engineering has its obvious advantages, it does have a downside when you start involving internationally diverse and widely separated project teams. For example, although the universal language of business is English, we all don’t speak the same version.

“Words have different meanings in various languages,” says Conklin. “Language and language skills are fundamental, but you also must take time to understand the cultural differences. We have all experienced this within the U.S. when working with external engineering resources and we all speak English as our native language.”

CCE seems to help, because the team can see documents. “Changes made to designs and justified in digital comments are less likely to cause misinterpretations than e-mail content or voice communications because the engineers can see the design and comments at the same time,” says Greer.

All this is nothing new, says Bert Aragon, a project engineer at KBR, Houston, a global EPC. “The challenges of English as a second language have existed all along. Concurrent engineering helps in that we get responses quicker and they can be analyzed faster. E-mail is a tremendous help. As someone whose native language is not English, I can attest to the power of reading over hearing spoken English, and having the opportunity to consult a dictionary before responding.”

In the U.S. and England, we cling to standard units of measure, while the rest of the world uses metrics. This can cause problems, too. “The issue isn't a language problem, it is a straight engineering problem,” says one engineer. “It has been with us since Bechtel started using H1B foreign nationals in the 1960s.”

Greer says if you use the right CCE software, it’s not a problem. “SmartPlant P&ID for piping and instrument schematics supports multiple measurement units and the major standards,” he explains. “For example, a U.S. engineer specifies MAWP of a valve in psi and his German counterpart's SmartPlant P&ID displays it in kPa.”

“KBR has worked in both metric and English units for years,” says Aragon. “We have processes to check these. CCE helps identify inconsistencies earlier.”

New collaborative software tools can deliver systems renderings and corrsponding P&IDs to engineering teams world-wide through a simple query. Source: Intergraph 
Even when everyone agrees on the language, working apart can cause programming problems. “Data collisions can lead to time-intensive debugging,” Bliss explains. “By isolating the tag definitions into separate areas known as ‘scopes,’ RSLogix 5000 helps to eliminate this particular side effect.”

The distributed control systems (DCSs) and other higher level software vendors also are prepared for CCE. “To facilitate implementation of our I/A Series systems, we developed an engineering tool that enables collaboration among engineers or customers in different locations throughout the world,” says Foxboro’s Babineau. “Anyone with access to a Web browser can be designated to share information in near real-time.”

Foxboro’s system works during plant design and afterward. “In engineering an I/A Series system we build a unique graphical process display for each customer,” he explains. In the old days, process displays used to go through the typical review cycle, Babineau says. This involved designing the page, printing it out, sending it to the customer, getting feedback by mail or fax, implementing the requested modifications and repeating the cycle until it was perfect.

“We have now streamlined that process with an online system that grabs the screen as soon as it is created and makes it available to the customer. The screen becomes available on the Internet or an intranet via a browser and email notification goes out to all designated team members. From there, the customer has access to tools that enable then to comment on the design and request modifications.”

More important to end users, it works afterward, too. “We call it the Web-based Information System for Executives (WISE) because it was initially designed as a way for customer executives to get a snapshot of information from the control system,” says Babineau.

“Suppliers like Yokogawa do a lot of the configuration of control systems and integration with instrumentation, subsystems, and supervisory or MES systems,” says Bruce Jensen, manager of marketing and sales support at Yokogawa ( “We are, in essence, a system integrator of our own products with other suppliers’ subsystems, instrumentation or supervisory systems. We do this either turnkey, or in collaboration with an EPC. Rarely is it with an end user.”

For smaller jobs, Yokogawa can handle everything internally. On big jobs, the need for CCE becomes more apparent. “As projects became bigger, several offices collaborate on various aspects of the design and implementation,” explains Jensen. “Some very large EPCs may use a controlled software system, but most automation projects can be managed through internal networking with the project files located on a file server, accessible to all team members through internal security access. Communication between team members involves teleconferencing, videoconferencing and data conferencing using such software tools as NetMeeting, WebEx, PlaceWare or the like.

Similar systems are available from other DCS vendors, HMI/SCADA software developers, and manufacturing automation suppliers. One major problem is that the software may not work with anything else outside each particular company. Foxboro’s WISE may not work with Rockwell’s RSLogix5000 system, for example. 

Let’s Play Nice
One way to make everyone play well together is to purchase collaboration software from a reputable company. Intergraph offers “data-centric” engineering, design, and operation tools, such as SmartPlant 3D, SmartPlant P&ID and[t2] INtools. Aspentech also has integrated engineering tools, such as the Aspen Engineering Suite, Zyqad collaborative engineering tools, and simulation and optimization packages. Where one company stops and the other starts is difficult to determine, because they have been joined at the sales hip since 1999, and market each other’s products. All the two company’s many tools interface in one way or another with DCSs, HMI/SCADA software, process historians, and other control packages.

Both are often employed at the same company, such as Fluor and Dow Chemical. Fluor, for example, used Aspentech software to help develop the gas processing plant mentioned above, but it also uses Intergraph’s software.

It appears, however, that you just don’t buy collaboration or CCE software and expect it to run all by itself. Considerable effort on your part may be involved.

When Aux Sable Liquid Products of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, decided to build a natural gas liquids (NGL) extraction plant in Channahon, Ill., it wanted to use CCE to help the project go smoothly. They hired Delta Hudson, a local EPC to do the engineering. Tom Pearson, project systems supervisor at Delta Hudson says they used Intergraph’s PDS to achieve CCE. “It integrates all engineering disciplines through one interface, and links them to a common database,” says Pearson. “This integration facilitates CCE. With tools such as SmartPlant Review, we are not only able to complete electronic squad checks across disciplines, but we are able to extend reviews directly to the customer.”

However, Delta Hudson didn’t just run PDS and Smart Plant Review all by itself. They had to run it with their own Online Project Systems (OPS) software.

Likewise, Bechtel employs a combination of software from vendors and its internally developed platforms to perform work globally. “We have our own dedicated Wide Area Network (WAN) connectivity with server farms strategically located to enable our work execution,” says Marshall. “Our hardware systems are constantly being optimized with regard to location and bandwidth requirements as requirements change.”

Bechtel is using Intergraph’s PDS, P&ID, 3DCADD and Smart Plant suite. “Many specialty design applications are integrated for data exchange by DataBroker, a Bechtel-developed application,” explains Marshall.

Seems like an awful lot of trouble for a lone control engineer in a small plant, without access to the resources of a big EPC. “There are many software solutions on the market today that will enable concurrent and collaborative engineering and design,” says Dow-Corning’s Conklin, who has been using CCE since the 1990s. “However, software solutions have a cost associated with them, over and above the initial purchase costs.

Software solutions have a certain amount of infrastructure requirements, such as hardware, networks, ongoing/version maintenance, and training. So if you have a small facility some of these solutions can be cost prohibitive.”

In that case, you might want to stick with CCE tools offered by your DCS vendor. All have collaboration software for the usual control system tasks. For example, SimSci-Esscor/Invensys (Lake Forest, Calif.), has its Comos FEED software, which ties front-end engineering to operation and maintenance and software from other Invensys operations.

You can also try National Instruments’ DIAdem software. It integrates with NI’s LabVIEW, has drivers for accessing various databases, and allows you to analyze, organize, report, and share data with multiple users. Other low-cost project management tools are available from a variety of vendors that will allow you to do CCE on a smaller scale.

Does collaborative engineering change the way plants are operated? After the plant's built, what then? Are there any operational problems stemming from collaborative engineering?

"Concurrent engineering in the operating plant will change–for the better—the way work processes are carried out,” says Greer. “Concurrent Engineering is playing an increasingly important role in executing operations, such as routine maintenance, calibration, retrofits, RBI and reliability efforts and other ongoing engineering activities.”

That may be true, but it only works if the end user is able to access the CCE materials after the project is over. “If there is sufficient documentation, and this means the “as-built” after startup, then this will normally present minimal problems,” says Conklin. “We have typically not had any significant issues relating to this.”

CCE-ing the Future
Is CCE a fad, or is it going to really change how we work together? It went away once in the 1990s because it didn’t catch on. 

“Concurrent engineering is definitely not a ‘toy-du-jour,’ ” says Aragon. “It really is the way we are doing things and it’s going to be around for a long time, as far as I can see.”

“Sometimes we really like our little islands of engineering expertise, because it gives us power,” says Conklin. “Working together and sharing knowledge and expertise are not normal behavior for many folks. Everyone brings their background and experience to the table, so each of us has something truly unique to share. It is from this sharing that we learn again and are able to add to our cumulative knowledge and experience base.”

“Concurrent Engineering is here to stay,” says Greer. “Supported by technology advances in software, hardware, networks and the Web, CCE will increasingly become an important way to improve work processes to increase profitability through plant operability, safety, efficiency, and constructability.”

If you are letting DCS and EPC companies design and install your next system, maybe it’s time to insist that they use CCE tools and techniques so that you will be able to access the drawings, documentation and data electronically, long after they are gone. Put it into your RFQ, so that the paper chase will be over on your next control system job.

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