New Approach for Shortening Schedules and Minimizing Risk on Automation Projects

  • October 23, 2013
  • Honeywell Process Solutions
  • Feature

By Paul Hodge & Joe Bastone, Honeywell

The processes employed in implementing plant automation and safety system projects have changed very little in the past 30 years, even though the technology in control systems has been constantly evolving over that time.

Traditional delivery models for automation solutions generally follow the standard engineering process of define, design, manufacture, configure, test and install. However, if a change in definition comes at a later stage in the project, then the design will likely need to be revised, the build and/or configuration modified and, potentially, the testing repeated.

The optimal approach for automation system delivery is to extend the definition for as long as possible to delay the start of design, as well as the impact of changes on downstream processes.


In a competitive marketplace, there is a need for manufacturers to ensure continual improvement across all aspects of their business. Plant automation projects can have a significant impact on overall economic performance. However, global sourcing, geographically distributed plant design and engineering, and remote locations of construction sites make the project lifecycle increasingly dynamic by nature.

Engineering processes on plant automation projects progress through a series of activities that continuously build upon each other to move the design from abstract ideas to validated engineering designs. Through the progression of these activities, decisions are made which enable subsequent activities to move forward based on the final design (See Fig. 1).

Figure 1. On automation projects, a series of activities move the control system from abstract ideas to validated engineering designs.

The automation system, in this sense, should be considered a collaboratively engineered system in that its design typically is not known at the time of procurement, but rather is developed by the supplier from multiple requirement inputs derived from preceding engineering activities.

Typical Project Challenges

Competitiveness on a global scale makes it even more imperative for industrial organizations to achieve their plant automation objectives both on time and within budget, while focusing on minimizing operational costs. This requires new ways to shorten schedules and minimize risk by optimizing activities at every phase of an automation project.

Due to the sequential nature of the traditional engineering approach for automation systems, there is only one path to project completion. This single path means that any delay or issue that arises in one of the components will directly affect the delivery of the subsequent components (See Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Traditional automation project workflow.

The ultimate efficiency for this model is to execute each one of these tasks in the timeliest manner, and only execute it once. In a real world situation, this becomes a very challenging endeavor. Projects are often required to be finished on tighter and tighter schedules, and changes in a project’s scope or definition often occur in its later stages. These late changes may mean that a design will need to be changed, the build and/or configuration modified, and potentially, the testing of the component repeated.

After decades of executing projects in the traditional way, it’s time for new thinking. Why is it necessary to order development systems at the beginning of the project? Why must groups of people travel all around the world to remote locations? Why force instrument freezes prematurely and have such tight linkage? And why should design be coupled to hardware?

Evolving Implementation Strategies

The growing demands placed on automation system suppliers to accommodate evolving project execution models have required reassessment of traditional delivery models. A paradigm shift in project implementation strategies, based on new approaches such as virtualization, universal channel technology and cloud computing, means the physical hardware workflow on projects can now be very different.

Separation of the physical and functional aspect of the control system into independent hardware and software design components enables both of these tasks to be completed in parallel. This breaking of the dependence of the software development from the hardware delivery also allows configuration activities to occur out of the traditional order of tasks.

In addition, configuration activities can be started much earlier in the project schedule, as they are not reliant on the physical system being designed, built or accessible. This independence leads to the creation of two separate execution paths, which are available to be managed to meet the project’s deliverables with greater flexibility than the traditional model (See Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Optimized project workflow.

Advent of New Technology

In the evolution of process automation, the functionality of control systems has moved steadily away from dependency on hardware to software. Software-based systems can be run on multi-purpose hardware supporting a greater variety of functionality with fewer, more versatile components. In this sense, the software supports control system functionality while the hardware supports physical requirements, such as input and output (I/O) connections to the process.

Industrial plants are deploying new, innovative technology to transform workflows on all types of automation projects. For example, the development of universal channel technology has completely liberated field I/O, as well as control cabinets, from channel type dependency. This solution permits late additions and modifications to I/O schedules with no more than a soft configuration change—potentially saving weeks of delay when making late-stage design changes.

Universal I/O modules reduce equipment requirements and footprint, and can be quickly configured for multiple channel types, ensuring utmost flexibility in system design. This concept enables multiple remote locations to be controlled out of a single centralized unit, with each channel of I/O individually software-configured either as analog input (AI), analog output (AO), digital input (DI) or digital output (DO). It reduces wasted I/O space and provides savings on both installation and operational costs since users no longer have to worry about having enough modules for AI, AO, DI or DO configuration. The I/O connection can easily be configured, and reconfigured, at any point.

Universal cabinet designs also allow I/O cabinets to be standardized, since any field signal can be connected to any I/O channel. The control system can be sized purely on the estimated total I/O count for the overall process or process units. Taking these benefits into the design process, there is no longer a requirement to custom-design each cabinet based on the specific I/O mix for that location. A universal cabinet that contains nothing but universal I/O can be designed once and installed in any location for the project (See Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Universal channel technology allows I/O cabinets to be standardized, since any field signal can be connected to any I/O channel.

In the same way universal channel technology has liberated I/O from the tight coupling that used to exist, virtualization has liberated control system software from its tight coupling with server and workstation hardware. Leveraging virtualization, upfront hardware requirements can be delayed—resulting in hardware that is more current when the project is handed over.

Given that hardware is shared rather than dedicated, an estimated number of host servers can be used to meet the needs of a system without having to identify the exact server and operator station requirements. Virtualization allows for a single, standardized workstation and server design that can accommodate a wide variety of topologies in a similar manner to universal cabinet designs.

Virtualized engineering environments in the cloud also allow engineers to work together on projects from locations around the world. When this collaborative effort is complete and the configuration has passed all required functional testing, it is extracted and made available for late data binding on the user’s target system. “Virtual” factory acceptance tests (FAT) also significantly reduce costly travel, staging and labor by validating configurations remotely.

In domains where a large number of similar, repeated equipment is present, configuring a system can be costly with little opportunity for re-use across projects. Manually building tabular displays for this equipment is expensive as well. Through the use of “equipment templates,” project teams can radically simplify configuration and operational efficiency. These templates include the entire related SCADA configuration for a given piece of equipment. Engineers can configure a system by simply adding a single piece of equipment requiring just a few details instead of separately building many points and operator displays.

Benefits To Industrial Plants

When applying optimized project workflows enabled by the latest control system technologies, a number of tasks that previously occurred in a system-staging environment can now be pushed out to the construction phase to enable earlier on-site delivery of hardware.

With the combination of universal I/O and virtualization technology, it is possible to level-load project execution while avoiding the traditional complications of back-end loading and management of change. In fact, with implementation of these solutions, project managers are able to reduce effort and schedule by at least 25 percent and have a significantly lower risk profile to keep automation off the critical path.

The specific benefits of this approach to industrial plants include:

  • Later design inputs and freeze dates
  • Longer define phase allows for more mature data inputs and fewer changes
  • • Earlier hardware installation on modules
  • Standard universal cabinet designs for earlier manufacture and installation
  • Removal of construction schedule risk for automation hardware
  • Removal of functional testing from project schedule critical path
  • • Late data binding of I/O channels
  • Separation of physical and functional allows for task independence using virtualized engineering infrastructure and simulation
  • Removal of manual data exchanges
  • Liberation of control software from coupling with system hardware
  • Delays upfront hardware requirements
  • Ensures current hardware at project hand-over
  • Implementation of standardized workstation and server design
  • Flexibility to accommodate diverse topologies
  • Utilization of virtualized engineering environment in the cloud
  • Improved collaboration among project participants in different locations
  • “Virtual” FAT allows configurations to be validated remotely


The advantages of optimized project workflow can be realized at both ends of the project schedule. The benefits may be applicable individually to a single project, or applied broadly to gain the maximum project flexibility. This flexibility is essential to ensuring control systems pose the least risk to project schedule and allow for safe, efficient and reliable plant startup and operation.


Paul Hodge, Manager, Experion System Infrastructure

Paul Hodge is the global product marketing manager responsible Experion’s system infrastructure which includes virtualization, operating systems, hardware and other related components. He has been with Honeywell for 19 years and has had exposure to different industries and most of Honeywell’s DCS and SCADA systems. He has particular interest and experience in virtualization, and enjoys discovering and promoting new ways that virtualization can help solve problems for the industrial control industry. 

Joe Bastone, Solution Manager, Experion Control & IO

Joe Bastone is solutions manager for Experion Controllers and IO Familes at Honeywell Process Solutions. Prior to this role, Joe spent seven years at a customer site defining, developing, and delivering updates to their process control system. Joe has a BS in chemical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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