Now, for a couple of items that may not be as intuitive:

Upgrades to complex systems, such as a control system, often allow companies to make continuous improvements over time, plan for graceful degradation of an automation system, and perform future expansions in a well-managed, modular fashion. For example, redundancy is typically a requirement in medium-to-large automation applications. But for smaller applications, the loss of a display console may be compensated for by a backup Web-based human-machine interface direct to a controller. This level of backup can come at a drastically reduced price, while also delivering added flexibility and functionality on a day-to-day basis.

A concentration on modularity for a new system can deliver a great many new features that can be surprisingly easy to implement. Perhaps you will want a text message while you troubleshoot a challenging issue. Perhaps you will want a special report while you are making some control enhancements to generate “before-and-after” analytics. Or, perhaps you will want to plan ahead for integrating additional sensors that you know will be coming with a new enhancement down the line. Relying on standards and leaving the door open to third-party products and interfaces and ad-hoc and short-term enhancements outside the core functionality of a system could help your company adapt to changing needs. Selecting the right technologies and data infrastructures and focusing on integrating best-in-class components can address your current needs well, while also significantly improving your ability to respond to future and transient requirements.

What makes projects successful?

ARC’s vice president of consulting, Dave Woll, did a study on this very topic. Although some aspects of the results were to be expected, some were enlightening. Surveyed manufacturers, with a healthy sampling of industry “leaders” and “followers” and a middle category of “competitors,” enabled ARC to uncover some important best practices.

Project success best practices:

The degree to which projects are considered to be successful varies widely between the three groupings of industrial companies: leaders, competitors, and followers. Understanding the value of automation also varies widely between the three, and so does the degree to which projects are funded. However, at the leader level, there is a correlation across success, understanding, and funding.

Leaders are more satisfied with their projects. In fact, leading companies generally do not have failed projects. They have systems in place to evaluate the merits of a project up front and then typically employ a stage gate process to reassess and adjust project parameters over time. While overall in the survey 70 percent of projects are considered disappointing or not meeting project justifications, the majority of projects among industry leaders are considered successful. This tells us that with the right processes, the outcome can be guaranteed.

Leaders clearly have a better understanding of the value of automation. When asked to rate their understanding, leaders responded with an equal and high measure of both excellent and good responses. The competitors and followers in the field were nowhere near as confident in their value propositions.

Leaders get more projects funded. Over 80 percent of leader respondents highlighted that more than 60 percent of projects considered are funded. Compare this to the approximately 25 percent of projects successfully funded from other respondents.

In a surprising result, leaders include nonquantifiable benefits, indirect benefits, and life-cycle considerations in their analysis; a significant number of respondents in the competitor and follower category indicated that they did not. Almost all companies include an analysis of total life-cycle cost in their project justification process.

Another surprising result was that leaders spend 50 percent less time performing risk analysis for a project than both competitors and followers. The takeaway here is that they focus on upfront design and then on project management, to assure a quality outcome. Leaders also leverage commercial tools or purchased tools for project evaluation and management, rather than ad-hoc solutions or systems on a case-by-case basis.

All respondents recognized the importance of keeping the same project team for the duration of a project. More than 75 percent responded in the affirmative.

When asked how they apportion the benefits of consultants, financial balance, and rules of thumb, leaders showed an equal respect for each. Other respondents gave a much higher weighting (two to one) to rules of thumb. This likely speaks to the lack of rigor, or goes back to the poor understanding of the automation project benefits when justifying projects. Consultants play a major role in helping leaders justify projects. In fact, according to the survey results, leaders weighed the importance of engaging consultants at over two to one with respect to both best operator advice and rules of thumb.

When reviewing the calculations for economic return, return on investment (ROI) was the most predominant method used. Other methods included economic value added, return on invested capital, and return on capital employed. ROI exceeded all other methods combined.

Finally, when surveyed about the involvement of upper management in project justifications, leaders indicated that projects were more successful when management took an active role in the entire process, from project justification to implementation. This likely drives transparency and improved communications to arrive at the desired outcome.

Conclusion

Many factors will affect the success of automation or related information technology projects. But first considerations should be based on overall company directives with respect to its competitive stance. What will make the company more competitive in the future, and how can this project influence that?

Then, it is important for everyone to be involved with the process. Communicate widely throughout your organization. Consider all alternatives and reevaluate and tune the process to drive toward your desired outcome. If your staff is new or inexperienced in making this type of strategic decision, involve industry experts to assist with selection criteria development, architecture development, vendor selection, or cost justification. However, do not delegate the responsibility completely. Make it a team effort.