Expecting the unexpected: The risks that didn't make the project plan
Keeping your ears open to the small things can make all the difference.
If you’ve been in controls long enough, it’s happened to you: a project that seemed to be going well suddenly hits a wall that was unforeseen and whose effects threaten to derail it irreversibly. My Waterloo came with a project to automate a press that made abrasive bars for honing pipe welds, compressing sand-like material into rectangular “sticks” that were then baked to produce the final product.
The automation portion was reasonably straightforward, applying mechanical and controls equipment that would feed the raw material into the die cavities, compress it and automatically offload the pressed sticks to small pallets. The usual risks were identified and hedged: subcontractor performance issues, equipment delays, personnel scheduling, etc. What doomed the project was my failure to heed a small, offhand comment made by the client even before the project began about how difficult the raw material was to work with, and how its properties changed from day-to-day and even hour-by-hour.
Previously, operators ran the press manually feeding the die cavities by hand using a small shoe holding the raw material. If the raw material was wet or fed poorly into the dies, the operator could agitate the shoe more vigorously. If it fed smoothly, a quicker motion was used.
Our machine functioned flawlessly in dry trials. Hopper feeders fed. Feed shoes indexed. Presses pressed. Manipulators picked and placed the “ghost” sticks perfectly. Conveyors conveyed. We were ready for our dress rehearsal.
At least we thought we were ready. The raw material ignored the law of gravity. It obstinately refused to fall into our die cavities as commanded. Voids were the rule, not the exception, and irregular sticks crumbled when picked up. We made adjustments and, just as we managed to get things working, the properties of the raw material changed as it dried and we were thrown back to square one. All the while the client’s remark about how stubborn the material could be haunted us. In retrospect, it was clear we should have run offline trials with the range of materials we would encounter in actual operation. We were too trusting in gravity.
Things eventually turned around and we ended the project on a high note. We managed to make the system work throughout the range of materials and properties presented to us, albeit after several redesigns of the feed system, multiple delays, and a tired project team. It was a hard lesson, but one from which we all learned and have used since to prevent a replay.
The moral of the story: Listen carefully to the process owners in the early stages of a project. They know their processes and have seen the full gamut of problems with equipment, materials, and processes. Problems can be overcome through the intelligent application of engineering, but only if one fully comprehends them, plans for them, and avoids going too far down the wrong path.
This post was originally written by Brad Ems. Brad is a project manager at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading system integrator providing industrial automation, operational support and control systems engineering services in the manufacturing and process industries. MAVERICK delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, and business process optimization. The company provides a full range of automation and controls services – ranging from PID controller tuning and HMI programming to serving as a main automation contractor. Additionally MAVERICK offers industrial and technical staffing services, placing on-site automation, instrumentation and controls engineers.
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Annual Salary Survey
Before the calendar turned, 2016 already had the makings of a pivotal year for manufacturing, and for the world.
There were the big events for the year, including the United States as Partner Country at Hannover Messe in April and the 2016 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago in September. There's also the matter of the U.S. presidential elections in November, which promise to shape policy in manufacturing for years to come.
But the year started with global economic turmoil, as a slowdown in Chinese manufacturing triggered a worldwide stock hiccup that sent values plummeting. The continued plunge in world oil prices has resulted in a slowdown in exploration and, by extension, the manufacture of exploration equipment.
Read more: 2015 Salary Survey