By Nels Tyring, CEO of TVC Systems, Inc.
More than a half-century in the industrial controls and information systems business—35 years in system integration—have taught me a few things about process control systems construction. Because the very nature of a system integrator’s job, anyone who practices this somewhat arcane art gets a very intimate look at the construction of process plants and systems. Since the system integrator (SI) is an early participant and nearly always the last member of the construction team on the site, he or she gets a look at the whole design and construction cycle and what went right and what went wrong during planning, engineering, construction and commissioning. I have seen well over 200 projects on three continents up close, and I can say with certainty that projects that didn’t go well have much in common. The mistakes that doom projects—or make them less successful and more expensive than they should have been—may seem obvious and rudimentary, but all too often, they are the factors that are partially or completely overlooked.
Here are the traps that make projects difficult, expensive and late. Avoid them, and chances of success improve exponentially.
Since most project owners—that is, the decision-makers responsible for the project—are infrequent visitors to the area of process construction, the pool of construction experience within the owner’s organization is either shallow or non-existent. Unless that vital knowledge is applied at the beginning, what the owner’s team wants, what it can afford and what it gets are often three very different things.
Construction is a complex, specialized, high-risk business. Its practitioners have been tempered and polished in the school of very hard knocks. The experience of such people will be invaluable. Process control system construction also requires a large number of players with very diverse motivations to work closely together toward a common goal. So let’s first identify what is needed by way of knowledge, expertise and experience to make your project successful.
The Methodology and Plan
The first thing required is a methodology and a plan to reach an identified goal. The methodology will outline the strategic steps that need to be taken. The plan will detail the tactical approach to achieving the goal. The methodology identifies the goal, the schedule, the budget, the process of selection of key players and the overall management of the project. The plan details how each one of these steps is carried out and in what sequence. Once in place and fully understood by all participants, these documents become the basis for success.
The Engineering Firm
All engineering companies do not have equal experience or necessary staff for all processes—and the right engineer with the right experience is the cornerstone of any successful project. To find the engineering firm with the right experience, check and recheck its references, look at some of its work similar to your project and talk to a list of its clients.
If experience is the first requirement for an engineering firm, dedication to task is second. Make certain the engineering company you choose will make your project a first priority and that you will have the company’s A team. Get a firm commitment on who will be members of that team and review their resumes. Interview the designated project manager and project engineer to make certain that they fit with your team. They are going to be in close association for a long, stressful period and compatibility and cooperation are essential.
A realistic budget is the key to a successful, on-time project. It needs to be constructed in steps. The first step is defining a clear set of goals the project must achieve. The second step is getting an expert opinion about what specific goods and services will be required to achieve those goals. Third is an expert opinion about what those goods and services will cost. The fourth step is getting estimates, preferably from those who will provide those goods and services, as the project’s plans and specifications become more and more detailed. These steps is will give you a reasonably accurate estimate of cost of the project at the time of financial approval, but may not cover inflation, delay or events that are beyond foresight or control such as weather, labor strife or other unknowables.
Major equipment items are easy to budget; construction costs are not. Try to fix construction costs at time of final budget approval. This can be done a variety of ways, and these should be investigated. Don’t cut corners or depend on unqualified low bidders to make your budget targets.
Schedule is the discipline of the construction project. It is at the heart of the old adage, “time is money.” Schedules are easy to construct and very difficult to enforce. The beginning of any single part of construction is subject to a myriad of potential delays, and each of those delays has the potential to slow the entire project.
These delays can be caused by any number of individual companies who put their priorities above those of the project. Government, financiers, suppliers, transportation companies, unions, technicians, engineers, end users, weather and the owner’s own management all are common producers of surprises. Any one—or all of them—can cause delay at any time and must be dealt with to achieve schedule.
The Construction Manager
The construction manager is the conductor who makes the various parts of the team work and play together to make the project a success. A good one will see that the whole team cooperates to find solutions to problems that present themselves as the project progresses. The whole team will fight a bad one, and the project will suffer.