How to build a better integration team

March 1, 2017
In this installment of Automation Zone, get your designers and builders on the same team for effective system integration.

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.

About the Author: Jacob Haugen

Jacob Haugen is communications director at Portland Engineering (PEI, www.portlandengineers.com). PEI provides engineering and systems integration services to partners throughout the Pacific Northwest. PEI is a member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA); see the company profile’s on CSIA’s Industrial Automation Exchange, www.csiaexchange.com.

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.

Time savings

Much of the cost savings are manifest through time savings. Projects that typically take six months to complete utilizing DBB can be completed in less than four months with PDB. Project schedule overruns are so common that we come to expect schedules to creep, and while this may mean more billable work, it doesn’t help owners.

Time overruns, even those within budget, are costly in terms of public opinion, and being able to consistently deliver a completed project on time can depend largely on the system integrator. By contributing to the design and streamlining communication among team members, PDB will significantly improve your odds of completing your project on time (if not well in advance).

Knowledge enhancement

System integrators play more of a role than simply tying systems together and starting them up. After the completion of any given project, the system integrator will often become the client’s de facto support provider. The client’s success will be driven in large part by the integrator’s knowledge of the system.

Including a system integrator as part of the design team provides clients with a long-term support resource that has an enhanced understanding of their system. This translates into long-term cost savings because support is optimized and all stakeholders have clarity on the owners’ wishes and expectations for long-term support. Having a system designed from the outset with the inclusion of an integrator will ensure better troubleshooting down the road because the system design will be in line with industry standards and not disconnected from real-world operation.

Progressive design-build as a project delivery method for system integration projects isn’t limited to large-scale projects; it can be easily employed on small-scale system integration jobs, too. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for project delivery, but if your project is technically complex, needs to be completed in a hurry, and/or there are hidden issues, then progressive design-build will help set you up for success.

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