End users, vendors, engineering firms and system integrators have been using various collaboration tools for decades to execute automation projects and optimize plant operations. But in the last few years, the power of these tools has increased while costs have plunged, leading to more widespread use.
For example, up to the late 1990s, email was of limited use because it only allowed users to send and receive simple text messages, and because not everyone had an email account. But now, everyone has multiple email accounts, and most can access these accounts worldwide from fixed and mobile devices.
Email has also grown much more powerful with file attachments, folders and other features. "Two aspects of Microsoft Office, in conjunction with email, have been shown to be a particular value," says Steve Elwart, director of systems engineering at Ergon Refining, a crude oil refiner in Jackson, Miss. "The first is Polling, which allows emails to be sent to a large group of people, and provides the capability for individuals in different locations to vote on requirements, documents or anything that requires a consensus. The other is Routing, a capability within Microsoft Office that allows documents to be sent sequentially to individuals for review and approval. Using this through email provides clarity in the approval process, and aids in keeping the task organized."
Video conferencing is a collaboration tool that has exploded in use because costs have dropped precipitously. Initially, video conferencing costs ran to hundreds or even thousands of dollars per hour, as each site required custom hardware and software, dedicated and high-bandwidth communication channels, and real-time administration by a third-party provider. Now, Skype and inexpensive webcams allow video conferences to be held at a moment's notice for a fraction of those costs, spurring use.
Similarly, the use of other collaboration tools is exploding to the point where it's hard to imagine any automation project being executed without the use of multiple collaboration tools.
A variety of "open" collaboration tools are available, plus some from automation vendors. Those who use collaboration tools typically employ more than one tool. Ergon Refining, for example uses email, SharePoint, teleconferencing, Skype, Doodle and WebEx/LiveMeeting to coordinate projects among various groups in the company and Emerson Process Management, its automation system provider.
Read "Process Automation: Collaboration at Ergon Refining" describes these tools in some detail, and explains how Ergon uses them.
Collaboration tools save time, reduce travel expenses, and allow system integrators and vendors to work with process firms worldwide. In some cases, collaboration tools make it unnecessary to visit the process plant. Scott Klages, of systems integrator Parsec Automation in Anaheim, Calif., reports, "Parsec has successfully implemented projects in China without any of our employees setting foot in the factory until the startup/training visit." (For more on how Parsec uses collaboration tools to eliminate site visits, see "Collaborating Halfway Around the World.")
Everybody Uses Email
No matter what other tools are employed, everyone uses email. "Optimation uses email as a primary method of communication," says Diane Trentini, marketing and sales VP at systems integrator Optimation in Rush, N.Y. "We use Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, and leverage such features as public calendars to show planned vacations and resources for conference room sign-out."
An anonymous end user at a refinery says, "We pass all types of information via email, including source code to vendors. This is particularly nice if you have a critical fix that needs to be
applied quickly. Email the source code, they make the changes and email back, and we load the changes."
Rick Hakimioun, senior instrument/electrical control systems engineer at Paramount Petroleum in Paramount, Calif., adds, "Email is an effective tool. That's because the correspondences and information exchange are documented and can be archived."
Tim Johnson, project manager at systems integrator Avid Solutions in Winston-Salem, N.C., agrees. "Each project is assigned an individual mailbox dedicated to all email communication associated with the project," says Johnson. "Benefits include having every piece of email and data transfer attachments located in one centralized location. Access is granted to each individual working on the project. Accessibility and organization are especially key when working internationally. Email is great for tracking, tracing and sorting deliverables. It's used as an overall communication path."
After email, the Microsoft product SharePoint is another big favorite among our respondents. System integrator Maverick Technologies in Columbia, Ill., uses it extensively (See sidebar, "Using SharePoint on a Project.")
Optimation uses it too (Figure 1). "The client portal at Optimation is based on SharePoint," explains Trentini. "If a project manager wishes to deploy this tool for a particular project, he or she works with a SharePoint administrator to set up the client site, tabs and page features to support the project's needs. These could include lists, links, document or image libraries and discussions/blogs. Of particular concern is the setup of the site security for the project team. Once configured, the team then needs to define the site usage expectations for the team. This type of site is especially useful for projects that are distributed geographically."
Similar tools are available. For example, Avid Solutions used OneNote on a recent project in Mexico (Figure 2). "The project required new technology and considerable customization involving a great deal of interaction with the client, software developers, sub-contractors and the hardware provider," says Johnson. "OneNote was instrumental in project collaboration as a repository for meetings, emails, templates and any documents related to the project. In addition to other tasks, a team member was assigned as the OneNote coordinator to organize and manage the file storehouse. Working remotely in Mexico and depending on hotel networks and bandwidth often complicated connectivity, but the availability of OneNote mobile apps made remote work easier"
Other similar tools include Google Documents, Agile, Huddle and Dropbox. "The best way to share and collaborate on project documents is to store these items in a location where they can be shared and updated by multiple individuals, while keeping tabs on the changes that are made," says Stephen Goldberg, director of information technologies at systems integrator Matrix Technologies in Maumee, Ohio.
"Dropbox has been a tremendous help when it comes to sharing project documents and drawings with clients due to its simplicity," says Steve Diamond, engineering manager at ARM Enertech Associates, a systems integrator in Harrisburg, Pa.
Dave Van Manen, PE, PMP and operations manager for enterprise integration at Maverick Technologies adds, "Ultimately, when working with a customer on any project,
every team member needs to refer to the same source of information that's current and valid. Collaboration tools help to eliminate confusion."
Meetings in Cyberspace
While phone calls among project team members remain necessary, web meetings and teleconferencing have become a large part of project management.
Skype is one of the most popular tools because team members can see each other on a screen and because it's dirt cheap. WebEx, LiveMeeting, GotoMeeting, Microsoft Lync and similar services let team members around the world meet, share documents and discuss project progress, also at low cost.
Anil Sharma, general manager of Essar Steel India says, "Essar has a global presence with companies located all around the world. Because of emails, web meetings and video conferencing, it's very easy to remain in touch with each other and quickly contact a concerned person for technical discussions."
Sharma reports these tools were used to commission five steel plants in Surat, India. "A lot of agencies within India and abroad were involved," says Sharma. "Almost daily there were telephone and video conferences with the purchasing department and vendors, including SMS Siemag, Siemens, Praxair and so on. These conferences helped to accelerate the procurement activities, clear up technical questions and perform modifications with mutual agreement.
"Video conferencing was effective, as a lot of drawings, layouts and physical locations of instruments were modified based on previous experience," he adds. "Without such conferences, a technical team would have to visit the site."
Matrix's Goldberg agrees. "It's very efficient and cost-effective to use web meetings combined with video conferencing. This allows for a level of face-to-face contact, and at the same time both parties can be reviewing the same document. We also often use web meetings to complete a pre-shipment test, since the client can see the HMI screens, and we can even use a camera to point out any physical details about equipment."
Jeff Tyler, global program manager at Rockwell Automation often has to coordinate activities around the world. "One of my ongoing projects includes engineering team members from the United States, India, Brazil and China," he explains. "On this project, we use email as the primary method to communicate specific information to internal and external team members and schedule meetings. In addition, conference calls, web conferencing and video conferencing are used to bring the project team together for meeting activities, such as project kickoff meetings, project review meetings, technical review meetings, etc."
Process automation vendors offer their own versions of collaboration tools. Emerson Process Management, for example, developed its Remote Virtual Office (RVO). Bob Wiggins, services product manager at Emerson, explains that, "The RVO architecture is comprised of both hardware and software, was built on a virtualization environment, is delivered through a secure engineering network, and provides an independent, isolated and secure system."
Emerson's Project Management Office develops and deploys processes, standards and tools to all of Emerson's engineering centers. "It uses common technologies such as SharePoint to give project teams the ability to exchange information, and provide visibility into project schedule performance to all team members," says Wiggins. Emerson's Enterprise Document Management System is a collaboration tool for managing project documents, and is scalable to match the needs of small, standard or large projects.
Likwise, Honeywell Process Solution's Experion Collaboration Station enables plant, business and support personnel to use interactive displays, embedded video and other telecommunication capabilities to communicate, collaborate and make decisions, regardless of where they're located.
"Honeywell's new collaboration tool provides the means for industrial organizations to visualize data across the enterprise in a way never before possible," says Chris Morse, product marketing manager at Honeywell Process Solutions. "The tool is designed to improve collaboration among multiple experts within the organization, making it easy to integrate all types of overviews, alarm displays and other users' computer screens; display and manipulate business network data and DCS information; and see the same views simultaneously for enhanced decision-making processes."
Except for email, no single collaboration tool stands out. Frost & Sullivan program manager Rob Arnold points out, "The choice of tools really depends on the user's preference and the task at hand. In general, users tend to select the most accessible tool and the one that is the lowest common denominator for the given task. For example, an email will usually suffice for basic correspondence, whereas using SharePoint to communicate a two-line interaction is overkill."
Arnold adds that, "People are beginning to use desktop and file sharing more frequently and consistently in web conferences. This is because developers have made tools easier to use. Today, we still have a lot of emailing back and forth to share files. This often causes a lot of problems with version management, crossed messages, full in-boxes and file size limitations. Quite often, SharePoint and other content management systems, as well as apps such as Google Docs, are used as libraries in which users can search for and post content and check files in and out, so that they can collaborate with better version management and without filling up their email in-boxes."
Face-to-Face Still Needed
As was pointed out above, it's possible to complete a major project without setting foot in a process plant or meeting anyone until start-up. Collaboration tools, virtualization, simulators, remote access and other tools can virtually eliminate the need for site visits.
Even though face-to-face meetings can be expensive, time consuming and difficult to arrange, many experts think face-to-face is still important. "In my opinion, face-to-face time needs to be at a minimum of 10%. It's certainly more effective in the initial proposal stage and in the selling of a project idea. It's impossible to relay the energy and interest projected by body language without a face-to-face meeting. Simply put, energy—good or bad—doesn't transfer across the Internet. Face-to-face interaction is also a key component for conflict resolution," says Johnson.
Kickoff meetings often require face-to-face contact. "Actual physical presence needs to be a priority very early in the project, such as a project kickoff meeting," says Goldberg. "This is still the best way to establish a relationship with someone in person and to get to know the project team on a personal level. No tool can replace this personal level of contact."
ARM Enertech's Diamond adds, "Face-to-face meetings are required in many cases, such as reviewing designs with large quantities of drawings, software/hardware demonstrations, meeting vendors, project kickoff meetings, and in cases where a large number of people need to attend."
Wiggins observes, "Face-to-face meetings early in the project schedule are needed to strengthen bonds between team members, and are an effective means for team building and increasing trust among the members."
But what about the expense? "I've found most of the collaboration process doesn't require face-to-face meetings, but there are times when that type of meeting is worth the time and cost," says Rockwell's Tyler. "This includes bringing a globally distributed project team together at the beginning of a longterm project, so they can develop rapport; during a project bid or kickoff so team members can walk through the process; for the technical review of a critical or complicated area of a process; or if there's a meeting that will take longer than a day or two to complete."
With the recent decision by Yahoo's new CEO to ban work from home, this is a hot topic. It's ironic that many of the high-tech firms that supply the tools to allow employees to work from anywhere do everything they can to keep their own employees on site.
Yahoo has banned off-site work, and Google and Microsoft provide their employees with everything from food to medical care to recreational facilities at their headquarters, sending out a not-so-subtle hint that employees are expected to be on-site as much as possible.
Collaboration tools make it possible for process industry end users, suppliers, engineering firms and systems integrators around the world to design, build and deliver an automation control system with a minimum of travel, face-to-face contact and site visits.
As Goldberg explains, it often takes a mix of all the tools: "On a recent project we did a project kickoff face-to-face. After the kickoff, the team met 50% of the time online and 50% face-to-face for project review meetings. Meetings were conducted via the web, sometimes with video. The pre-shipment test included some team members that travelled, and some stayed behind and attended via web conference. Email was used to document conversations, and a SharePoint site was used to store project data."
Similar to Goldberg, you and your company probably use a mix of collaboration tools and face-to-face meetings to execute automation projects. And you're probably using more tools and attending fewer personal meetings than in the past. Expect this trend to continue, as the costs of collaboration tools continue to drop, while functionality improves, and automation professionals become more comfortable with online conversations as opposed to face-to-face interactions.