When minimizing cost compromises functionality, its price may be too high

One core duty of engineers is to spend their company’s or their client’s money efficiently, by understanding the function or value of an application, and seeking a way to deliver this function in the best way.

By John Rezabek

If you are cohabitating with a non-engineer, you may have discovered, like me, that “form” and “function” are rarely combined in the same purchase. I thought about this while nursing along the first fire of the season in my government-subsidized and certifiably 75% efficient biomass combustor, i.e. wood burning stove. It’s a compromise between a lovely piece of furniture that complements the family room, and a hopefully efficient way to help stave off the cold while utilizing the windfall from carbon-consuming trees on the lot. I’m thankful that my spouse is around to enforce some level of aesthetics and taste because the engineer she lives with would probably have installed some obnoxious obscenity of half-improvised pig iron jutting out into the living space.

This sort of deliberation can keep the conscientious engineer in his or her cubical long after the custodian has emptied their trash can.

As engineers, one of our core duties is to spend our company’s or our client’s money efficiently. We do this—or not—by understanding the function or value of an application, and seeking a way to deliver this function most efficiently. Sometimes the cost of solving a problem outweighs the anticipated benefit, meaning the enterprise may not spend at all. This can also motivate us to shy away from features or frills that aren’t essential to the perceived core function, e.g. to measure and control a flow. But as a knowledgeable practitioner, and through the education afforded by publications like this one, our peers and our vendors, we know there are nuances in all these decisions. Will the installation require heated enclosures and heat-traced impulse lines? Will piping reductions and straight run requirements increase cost and complexity for the mechanical designer? Will the end user be perplexed by curious indications of flow in the low range of a DP application? This sort of deliberation can keep the conscientious engineer in his or her cubical long after the custodian has emptied their trash can.

Our procurement professionals and the management to which they answer do not always seem to have much sensitivity for such nuances. As one refinery manager famously told now-retired Emerson president John Berra (I paraphrase), “I see all instrumentation as a cost!” And so we have the “competitive bid.” We all know how this strategy works, where specifications and requests for quotation are sent to a cadre of potential suppliers, and the winner is chosen based largely on cost. There may be a “gotcha” line in a specification that excludes some marginal bidder, or a subtle exception that, if unnoticed, gets a less qualified bidder in the mix.

Once awarded, there’s another cycle of review, approval drawings and negotiation as the successful bidder identifies “profit recovery” opportunities, as in, “You didn’t say you wanted <insert essential feature>.” In the midst of all the battle about scope, deliverables and cost, we can lose sight of the objective: delivering a useful and meaningful measurement or control loop. The battle itself is not an insignificant cost as it consumes man-hours and schedule on the part of both buyer and bidder.

Most can cite numerous instances where the low-bidder strategy has created problems that negated any savings. Many of the ultimate end users can recount how much time, treasure and toil they’ve spent rectifying the failings of one project or another. Regrettably, devotion to the low bidder often acts to eliminate any consideration of smart devices, or creative use of device intelligence. Indeed, unless the client or end user explicitly expresses a strategic requirement for incorporation and use of device intelligence, the least common denominator, e.g. 4-20 mA, will be the default. My personal view is that it’s another professional duty to push back against the tendency to backslide into just doing what we’ve always done. Systems decisions especially can have the effect of locking-in a site to the analog days of yore.

It will remain a duty of our discipline to be thrifty with our client’s money, and we can take pride when we find creative ways to deliver function efficiently. But we shouldn’t dismiss those whose vision goes beyond base functionality—they might just save us from having a ghastly hunk of pig iron in the front room for years to come.

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