Engineering projects are often complex and integrating the various elements can be challenging. Here are 3 tips for providing a solution to the unknown variables often found in systems integrations.
Engineering projects involve various disciplines – from mechanical, to electrical, to electronics, to controls, et cetera. Different teams and vendors are responsible for different aspects of the project.
An important question quickly arises:
“How do you get each discipline to work together in harmony towards a successful result; and who is responsible for that?”
System integration by professional engineers (or engineering integrations) is an area often overlooked at the start of a project. Most will wait until the various groups have completed their aspect of the project to work on an integration plan.
The problem with this approach is that it often comes at a cost of both time and money. This leaves projects running past deadlines and over budget.
Without the foresight to set up the proper KPIs for the project, much is left unknown until the late stages of the project.
The proper approach starts with a systems integration plan to provide a solution to the unknown.
Let’s look at a simple example to illustrate the need.
We’ll use a simple motion control project for an example. The system being built is a basic conveyor system to move boxes from one end of a facility to the other end.
From a system design perspective, you will have a mechanical vendor for sprockets, rollers, belts, et cetera; you will have an electrical vendor for electric motors and power modules; you will have an electronics vendor for sensors and stop/start controls; and you’ll have a controls team writing the software to control that conveyor system.
The job of the system integrator is to ensure that all of those systems and teams work together in perfect harmony so the project stays on time and on budget.
The system integrator’s job is to:
- Ensure technical aspects and quality of the work are translated and executed through to the end product. As an example, to ensure the sensors communicate properly with the controls software and can also fit in the physical space allocated by the mechanical engineers.
- Ensure proper communication for the teams so that all understand the impact of any changes made to the plans and how those changes might affect each discipline.
- Be the “translator” from one discipline to the next to ensure all communications and technical changes are understood.
Rarely are a company’s engineers experts at all engineering disciplines and rarely are they also able to translate between disciplines, which is why a system integrator becomes essential. The system integrator can see the big picture while also enhancing the communication and cross-disciplinary activities of the overall team.
So, how do you go about ensuring proper system integrations from the start? Here are 3 tips for providing a solution to the unknown.
1. The first step is to start with the end goal.
This does not simply mean we want a “thing” completed. It is diving into the details to figure out all key functions of the system (i.e., the “thing”). For example, if you are trying to create an assembly line for car assembly, you must start with all key functions of that assembly line.
- Are you integrating people and robotics?
- Is the line going to be a fully automated line?
- What are maintenance functions needed?
- What are the analytics needed for properly measuring efficiency?
- What are the key functions of the line?
- Do you want to be able to build out more in the future as a modular add?
Fully understanding the end goal is the most critical as this is where you begin to generate your team of vendors, subcontractors, internal engineers, etc. Planning is the first step in integrations.
2. The second step is to set up lines of proper communication.
Communication between teams becomes critical as progress is made, obstacles are overcome and changes have to be made.
For example, in building the assembly line we discussed in step #1, it’s determined that the initial design needs to be extended 50 feet due to new needs for that line. The extension of that line may require different motors and rollers to handle the needs of that extension. It’s going to require longer power lines to power the extension. And it may require a change in the controls software to operate that additional 50 feet of the line.
What if no one told the controls software team? Or no one told the team that powers the line about the extension? When it comes time to actually assemble the line, there’s not enough cable to provide power and the motors aren’t strong enough to handle the extra 50 feet. Now you have a problem, because you have to go back and rebuild…and you’ve now missed the deadline and gone over budget.
If proper communications are set up from the start, these kinds of problems are avoided.
3. The third step is to establish the proper KPIs, metrics and quality assurance milestones to be reached.
In order to ensure proper system integration, you’ll need to set up proper metrics that can be audited at points along the project life cycle.
If each team knows what it has to do by when, and who they need to tell, it becomes easy to keep projects on track, identify possible roadblocks, and ensure potential delays and mistakes are minimized.
This is another key area most companies overlook as they see it as an unnecessary step. That is until they reach the end and realize they’ve missed key markers that have caused the project to go awry.
Setting up the proper plan ensures you can keep the project on track, on budget and on time.
In a way, a system integrator is like a project manager, except the system integrator is a professional engineer that has the technical understanding of the various engineering disciplines involved and can ensure the various parts of the project integrate effectively to ensure project success.
At the start of any engineering project, teams know what they are building. But the “unknown” is often how everyone will get there and with what team.
Utilizing engineering integration tools and a system integrator will provide a solution to the “unknown”. And will ensure your project will be more likely to be on time, on budget and with the right end product.
If you’d like to learn more about how to handle engineering integrations for your company, contact us here.
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