How Industry Professionals Pull Together in Process Automation Projects

Advances in Functionality Coupled with Dramatic Price Cuts are Fueling the Use of Collaboration Tools for Process Automation Projects

By Dan Hebert

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SharePoint Soars

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."

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