Asset Management / Data Acquisition / Optimization / Systems Integration

FLEX methodology to keep automation off critical project path

Intelligent Marshalling, virtualization and cloud engineering combine to streamline project delivery

By Keith Larson

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While automation typically represents a small slice of the total investment required in a given capital project, it can have an outsized effect on project risk.

Because automation system design necessarily is dictated by process design, automation work typically begins only after the process design work is substantially complete. Those inevitable late changes in process design cascade through a partially completed automation system design, necessitating costly and time-consuming rework, and confounding attempts to get ahead. As a result, automation often has remained stubbornly on the critical path to project completion.

Schneider Electric has set about to change all that by combining several of its key technology advances into a new project methodology called FLEX, for Flexible, Lean EXecution. "FLEX is how we execute major projects," explained Chris Lyden, senior vice president of strategy and offer management, Schneider Electric, today at the company's 2015 Global Automation Conference in Dallas.

Flexibility for late changes

"Whether it's a mega project or a small expansion, the push for greater efficiency is there," Lyden explained. "FLEX is all about using technology and work processes to increase automation design flexibility in order to decrease project costs and compress project schedules."

Key technology elements of FLEX include the company's Intelligent Marshalling configurable input/output (I/O) solution together with virtualization, reusable libraries of control system functionality, integration with SmartPlant InTools design software, and a cloud-based design environment that allows personnel from around the world to collaborate on automation projects.

Together, these technologies help to break the longstanding dependencies of hardware and software design, and between geography and engineering resources. With FLEX, for example, all that's needed to order and begin installing I/O is an approximate total count. The control logic and graphics are developed along a separate path on Schneider Electric's project management cloud. Virtual factory acceptance tests (FAT) replace expensive and time-consuming travel, and only late in the project is the software downloaded to the control system hardware and bound to the I/O, so changes can be more gracefully accommodated along the way.

"Our mission is to help address and minimize risks to project execution," added Grant LeSeuer, director of product management for Schneider Electric's Foxboro control system software. "FLEX also elevates engineering talent from a cookie-cutter engineering resource to a value-adding engineering resource."