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.