Embracing the design process – rethinking how manufacturers approach automation technology upgrades
September 20, 2020
The way many manufacturers think about technology upgrades is broken.


Driven by the desire for cost certainty, clear schedules, and defined deliverables, manufacturers often want to engage in lump-sum, turnkey projects. They define the requirements in-house, put out a Request for Proposal (RFP) or Request for Quote (RFQ), and select the winning bid.


However, at this stage of a project there are far too many unknowns. Both the manufacturer and the bidding automation firms lack clarity around the project goals, the existing manufacturing processes, the technology required, and the design of the solution.


As a result, lump-sum projects risk significant delays and budget overruns due to change orders, scope creep, or other unexpected issues. Worst of all, manufacturers may not even get a solution that provides the performance or functionality they really needed.


In response to these challenges, small and medium manufacturers must shift their thinking and embrace a design-first approach to automation technology. By spending more time, and a little bit of extra money, during the design and planning phase, manufacturers can realize substantial savings over the entire project and receive a solution that delivers on its promises.


To help you embrace this design-first mentality, here are four things you should know before starting your next automation project.


1) Engage an automation design partner right away


The earlier you engage with an automation design firm, the better. Not only can they bring additional technical expertise to your project, they can also help guide you through the planning phase and help you understand what you really need.


Your partner is going to want to know as much as possible about your facility, existing technology, future strategy, and desired outcomes. They can then identify areas for improvement and spot the low hanging fruit that will give you the best return at the lowest cost.


While it’s still OK to engage later in the process, or if you already know what you need, having everyone collaborating, communicating, and sharing information as early as possible goes a long way toward delivering the best possible solution for your business.


2) Understand your goals, objectives, and long-term strategy


No automation project happens in a vacuum. Any time you add new equipment, machines, software, or other technology to your process, you’ll impact the upstream and downstream processes as well. Take the time to really understand what you want to achieve with technology and share this information with your partner. This way, they can design and deliver a solution that fits with these goals.


For example, the design firm may decide to take a modular approach to equipment if you’re forecasting rapid growth, allowing you to expand production as required. Similarly, it’s important to consider how technology will integrate and communicate with existing and future systems. An open approach will help avoid data silos and ensure that future upgrades can be incorporated into the larger production process.


3) Change how you think about budgets and schedules


This might be the most important point for manufacturers. Taking a design-first approach requires manufacturers to shift their mindset around cost and timelines.


It’sunlikely that you’ll have enough information at the start of a design project to provide an accurate budget and schedule. Despite the desire for a single capital expense, the design process doesn’talign well with this model. The full scope of the project isn’t yet understood, either by the manufacturer or the design firm.


Instead, it’s best to view the project in two phases: planning and budgeting, and execution and implementation. The first allows time for the project to be properly scoped, the requirements to be fully understood, and the initial design work to be completed. At this point, it’s much easier put a cost and schedule around the project as everyone agrees what to do next.


Across industries, companies are beginning to shift away from lump-sum projects when design work is required. Last year, SNC-Lavalin announced that it would no longer take them, with President and Chief Executive Officer Ian Edwards stating, “Lump-sum, turnkey projects have been the root cause of the Company’s performance issues.”


4) Test, validate, and embrace failure


Design is not a linear process. Every time you try to innovate, there is a chance that it won’t work as expected or deliver the desired performance. Designs need to be tested, validated, and, occasionally, brought back to the drawing board.


Instead of viewing these as setbacks, manufacturers should view these moments as an opportunity to make things better. In fact, the design process is there so that you catch issues early on and avoid compounding mistakes based on inaccurate assumptions or incomplete information.


In the end, by trusting the design process and returning to it throughout the project, you can avoid costly delays and budget overruns, reduce the need for change orders, and, ultimately, end up with a better solution than if you follow a fixed-cost RFP process. Build this into your budget and schedule from the beginning, and work with an automation technology company that understands the value of design throughout the project.


Taking a design-first approach to your next project


While it may feel uncomfortable, manufacturers should embrace a design-first approach and view it as a valuable part of any automation technology project. Though there is less upfront certainty around things like budgets, timelines, and deliverables, the truth is that the design process is there to uncover this information, determine what you actually need to achieve your goals, and mitigate the risk of delays, cost overruns, and performance issues down the road.


With a bit of extra time and money spent in the planning phase, manufacturers leave room for new ways of thinking about automation, new solutions that fit their needs, and new ways of making things better in their production facility.

Eric Martin C.E.T.

Eric Martin C.E.T.

Electronic Engineering Technologist, is owner and President of JAE Automation. For over 25 years, Eric’s passion has been about making things, and how to make them better. Since founding JAE Automation in 2000, along with leading his team, Eric has been engaged in automation design for the automotive, consumer goods, food and beverage sectors and many more.


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