How to build a better integration team

In this installment of Automation Zone, get your designers and builders on the same team for effective system integration.

By Jacob Haugen, Portland Engineering

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Progressive design-build (PDB) is a method of project delivery that integrates the design team and the builder into a single design/builder team from the project’s outset. Whereas traditional design-bid-build (DBB) projects operate in distinct, separate phases, progressive design-build incorporates members of the design and construction teams into a continuous process of design and construction. This method continues to see increased use across engineering disciplines, but it’s not just for big projects. Indeed, it provides to system integration projects several benefits not offered by other project delivery methods.

System integration as a design/contracting discipline is a process that involves bringing together component subsystems into a whole and ensuring that those subsystems function together. System integration requires a detailed and thorough understanding of the many processes going on within a given facility and the practical ability to bring them together in a way that enhances the client’s value and productivity without compromising the system’s longevity or robustness.

Every process in a facility is ultimately managed in your control room, so it’s crucial to have confidence that your system does what it is intended to do – optimize value, minimize risks, and help alleviate human error – reliably and consistently. When you invest significant resources and cost into your facility’s infrastructure, it makes little sense to cut corners on what is effectively the brain of your process – and yet this can be the inadvertent consequence of separating the design team from the builders.

Because of system integration’s place as a final step in construction, system integrators are typically far removed from the initial design phase of a given project. By the time a traditional DBB project design specification reaches the system integrator, it reflects set criteria. System drawings, dimensions, ergonomic factors, aesthetic factors, cost, maintenance that will be needed, quality, safety, documentation, and description are already finalized. And this specification, as all system integrators will understand, is more of a theoretical/conceptual estimation developed in good faith by less-than-practically-experienced engineers in the field of system integration. Just as no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, no design engineering specification survives contact with the system integrator, and the changes before implementation almost always benefit the owner.

The reason for change is the complexity of system integration. PDB projects often involve retrofitting and expanding existing facilities using new and old equipment while maintaining operations. This is more technically complex than a typical greenfield DBB project, and being able to complete projects like this successfully requires hands-on knowledge of how systems behave in the real world. The benefits of the PDB approach will emerge during design and project execution if system integration is included as part of the team.

Cost improvements

The most notable improvement to owners is cost savings. First, on a traditional DBB project, a tremendous amount of time and money can be spent duplicating “bringing the team up to speed.” After the design team members spend months familiarizing themselves with the system and developing their design, the build team then must undertake the same time-intensive process just to reach a point at which it can execute construction. Because a knowledge threshold is required for all projects, by integrating the design team with the system integrator, much of this time wasted transitioning between design and construction is eliminated.

Second, by incorporating the system integrator into the design team, so much of the red tape associated with change orders is removed. No longer will change orders languish for weeks at a time moving up and down the subconsultant ladder. Instead, design considerations will be addressed quickly as a team, letting the system integrator execute on change orders quickly. This significant reduction in time coupled with direct consultation among all tiers of the design-build team saves owners money while producing a better design.

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