Implementing complex material handling and robotic systems poses many challenges to both the systems integrator and the customer. These systems usually involve all disciplines of engineering and manufacturing. A collaborative effort from this team of varying origins is required to successfully integrate automation solutions within industry. I have been engaged in engineering and integration of material handling and robotic solutions since 1985 and will offer the following key factors that contribute to the successful integration of any complex system.
Open and cooperative communication between the customer and the integrator.
The beginning of every project starts with the customer desiring to improve their manufacturing processes and create better control of the processes involved. Hopefully this originates with a scope document that defines the critical factors of the process for the integrator to review and respond to. Many times this is not the case. The integrator is then responsible to interview the customer in an effort to define the scope of the project. An environment of trust and collaboration between the customer and the integrator is critical at this stage. The integrator must be able to listen attentively as the customer usually has more knowledge of the specific process being addressed. Through listening and open communication the integrator gathers the knowledge of the needs of the customer. The value that the integrator brings to the table at this time is their broad exposure to the equipment and/or solutions required and their ability to offer these recommendations to the customer. A proposal is usually the outcome of this effort. The proposal is the first starting point to define the scope of work and the deliverables required for the project at hand.
Creating the proper team.
There are two teams that exist within a typical integration process. The team at the customer’s manufacturing facility, and the engineering team of the selected integrator. Unlike most teams that we are exposed too, these teams don’t compete, they work together to address the common cause. It is imperative that both teams are staffed with the proper expertise to solve the challenges at hand. The team at the customer end must incorporate the specific expertise and knowledge of the manufacturing process to be automated and be able to effectively communicate that to the integrator. The integrator is usually selected based upon their respective knowledge of the systems involved in automating the customer’s process. It is the integrators responsibility to staff accordingly all the disciplines of engineering required to successfully integrate the most cost effective, reliable, and efficient solution. Once the teams are staffed accordingly, they must develop an open relationship with each other that facilitates the sharing of the intellectual property that originates from both teams. This is a wonderful experience when executed properly and both teams are enriched by the process.
Thorough definition of the scope of work for each discipline involved in your project.
As mentioned earlier, many engineering disciplines are required to integrate an automated material handling and/or robotic system. Typical disciplines involved are Project Management, Controls Engineering, Software Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Facility Development, and Installation Engineering. Each of these disciplines must then create documentation that thoroughly defines their respective scope of work. We at BMH refer to these as Functional Scope Documents. These documents are prepared by the project engineering team of the integrator and then reviewed and approved by the customer. This should actually take place prior to the actual execution of work. This is the stage that I feel is most critical to success. Proper definition and planning in this stage will set the foundation of a well defined project where both parties are in agreement of the scope of work.
Proper Project Management Methodologies
We now have the teams created and the process defined. It is time to get to work. There is a wide array for the schools of thought with respect to Project Management Methodologies. I will not attempt to reinvent the wheel within this article. I will say that any successful end user and/or integrator must have these procedures defined and documented within their respective organization. This ensures a cohesive effort of defined steps that are taken to successfully integrate each project. These procedures must be firm and followed but not burden the team with unnecessary administrative tasks. The environment of integrating automation solutions is a very dynamic environment where technology improves and changes every year. Project Management methodologies must be flexible enough to allow for change in processes when required to improve efficiencies.
Complete and effective acceptance testing.
The system is now engineered and built at the integrator’s facility. This is the time when all the teams are starting to bear the fruit of the hard labor. The system is now a reality and it is an exciting time for both the customer and the integrator. We must not let this excitement overshadow the task at hand, which is to thoroughly debug and test the functionality of the equipment. Documents should be prepared that define the acceptance test criteria. These documents should also be reviewed and approved by the customer and the integrator. Every effort should be exhausted to test multiple scenarios of system operation including, but not limited to: start up, steady state production, changeover, purge, and error recovery. As much time as it may take, it is by far more cost effective to address these issues during acceptance testing at the integrator, than it is when the system is being installed at the customer location.
Complete and effective installation management
Installation is the last, and in many ways, the most visible phase of every project. Effective installation management is a very important part of the process and must not be overlooked or underestimated. Time frames for installation are usually limited due to the potential to interfere with production. Effective communication and scheduling is fundamental at this stage. The integrator and the end user must create the complete installation team with the proper staffing to accomplish the job at hand, in the amount of time required. Open issues documents are typically created and updated on a daily or even shift by shift basis. Once again, the team is large and diverse. They must have effective direction at every stage so that no inefficiencies are created through lack of direction. It truly is Project Management at the micro level.
Finish the last 1%
Anyone involved with integrating systems knows the last small percentage of the project is sometimes the most difficult to complete. The team may be tired from the sometimes exhaustive effort during installation. They will require the leadership to stick with the project until every open issue is crossed of the list, no matter how minor it may seem. The teams involved have been working on the project for many months and in some cases more than a year. They have exhausted too much effort and resources to allow this last 1% to determine the success or failure of the project. Complete the job in every detail and you and your customer will have a continued relationship of trust and respect that will benefit all parties involved.