After attending an industry analyst meeting, I was struck by the number of presentations that discussed the cost and complications of customizations done for industrial automation projects. For example, one speaker mentioned that over 60 percent of motor control centers are being customized on projects deviating from standard industry offerings.
I believe this brings into focus the difference between application engineering and design. A reasonable part of my career was spent as an application engineer for automation projects. Based on delivering projects on time and on budget, I was also tasked with focusing people on application engineering using standard products to keep projects on budget.
Customization of products that deviate from vendor and industry standards leads to a number of problems on projects. Initially these typically increase the cost of hardware and software used on a project. The initial cost increase created by customization decisions is just the down payment leading to other expenses. Engineering and as-built documentation costs increase because of the deviation from industry-typical products and designs.
For example, standard computer-aided design templates and information cannot be used to automatically generate documentation for unique modifications, creating more labor and the potential to induce more errors into the project. Nonstandard customized hardware and software increase installation labor costs for commissioning, startup, and validation, since they deviate from what people routinely understand. Later, these customizations create higher life-cycle support costs, and many times result in “brittle systems” prone to failure.
Customizations by their nature increase mean time to repair (MTTR), because they are unusual—requiring maintenance people to find, study, and understand unique documentation. In some cases, customizations require unique parts for repair that may be difficult to find. Higher MTTR increases production downtime for repairs and lowers overall system availability. All of these factors increase the risk of project time line and cost overruns.
Customization can be a very seductive activity, providing personal satisfaction for the controls and automation engineers, who feel they are creating something special. Many vendor salespeople find customizations rewarding, because they increase cost and in many cases create a highly dependent customer relationship. This is particularly true where the customer has to pay the vendor for nonrecurring engineering investments, and this sunk cost creates a barrier to using other solutions for changes and upgrades in the future.
Working under experienced people, I was taught that the best application engineering uses standard products, software, and hardware to creatively achieve project goals. This is a different way of thinking that has the constraint of using standard products and the challenge to innovatively apply them. In many cases, this approach forces the application engineer to seek out new and better standards, components, and software to achieve project goals.
The application engineering process starts by working with stakeholders to understand, clarify, and gain consensus on the functional requirements and goals to be achieved. Application engineers identify requirements by establishing personal rapport with product, manufacturing, and operations people.
This leads to collaboration, resulting in process improvements and efficient manufacturing. A successful and effective industrial controls and automation system design and implementation is the work product resulting from the application engineer’s analysis of requirements translated into a working system. Application engineering is a creative approach that requires seeking knowledge, being resourceful, and thinking outside of the box.