Project Management for Assembly Automation
When purchasing an automated assembly system, plan well, build on the experience of others, and work with a solid team.
Your company has just decided to add a new product to the lineup, and now it’s up to you to purchase a new assembly line. No worries. It’s just like buying something on Amazon, right? You search for a product with at least a four-star rating. You browse a couple reviews. A few clicks later, you’re all set.
Dream on! Not even close. This may well be the largest purchase you have ever been involved with, and it will consume the balance of your thoughts for the next year. And, don’t forget that everybody’s watching.
As with any new significant endeavor, the best course of action is to plan well, build on the experience of others, and work with a solid team.
Assembling the Team
First, let’s first go over the functions of the team.
Project manager. This is the organized one. He’s in charge of tracking tasks, documents, project charging and other jobs. He keeps everyone on the same page and aware of their tasks.
Supply chain manager. This is your buddy in the foxhole if things get bumpy with the supplier. He covers contracts, negotiations and change orders.
Technical lead. This is the go-to person for all technical information. If he doesn’t have it, he knows who does.
Quality manager. This is source of quality standards. He reviews documents and evaluates suppliers.
Environmental safety and health manager. This is the source for safety standards and best practices.
Product manager. This is the voice of the customer. He knows in detail what is to be produced and why.
Facilities manager. This is the source for many of the questions that will need to be answered in the specification. Will the machine fit? Will there be enough power?
Process engineer. This person is the most invested in the details. He will be responsible for development and qualification of the process.
Equipment engineer. He owns the specification, controls and systems engineering. He knows the company’s standard practices and preferred suppliers.
Product development engineer. This is the key resource for the product’s function and specifications. It’s likely that some new feature has been added to the product and it hasn’t been mass-produced before. Keep him on the team until production is up and running.
Operations manager. He is not the final customer, but he will be the most vigorous advocate for making sure the new assembly line works.
Of course, the team should be scaled up or down to match the complexity and size of the project. Small projects may require people taking on multiple roles, but be sure not to neglect a role just because it seems small. You may also have other functions such as regulatory compliance, permitting or certification that require special attention.
To break the project down into manageable pieces, a set of 12 phases are suggested here as a foundation. These phases will ultimately be shaped to match your organization’s style and project management system.
Requirements. This document details the product to be produced along with the capacity and cost requirements.
Specifications. This document translates the product requirements into functional details of the new equipment.
FMEA. A failure modes effect analysis on the proposed equipment design is the best way to reduce technical and scheduling risks.
Proposal. Submit the specifications to suppliers, answer their inquiries, and revise the specifications if necessary.
Supplier selection. Evaluate proposals, supplier capabilities, and efficacy of the original specifications.
Test plan. Determine the methods, materials and resources needed to test and accept the equipment at the supplier and at your factory.
Design reviews. Review the specifications, conceptual design and detailed design before the build starts.
Build. Build the system and further define details of the equipment’s operation that were not included during the proposal or design reviews.
Factory acceptance. Evaluate the completed equipment relative to the specifications.
Site preparation. Prepare your facility for the system, including supporting equipment and procedures. Install the equipment on the factory floor and start it up.
Site acceptance testing. Execute the test plan and evaluate the machine compared to the specifications.
Process qualification. Full capacity evaluation of yield and quality.
Now that we have a picture of the team and the project’s phases, let’s dive into the inner workings of the project.
Planning is preparation for actions you know of and anticipation of things that could likely go wrong. Project management is a methodology to organize tasks and keep the project on track. There are plenty of ways to manage this function, and if your organization has a system in place you should use it, even if it’s not ideal. Reducing the friction related to getting tasks done is a critical and ongoing endeavor. Using a system that people are familiar with improves acceptance of the tasks. Adding procedures to the existing project management system may be helpful, such as personalized task summaries and one-on-one discussions.
A good project plan should start with a charter that defines the project’s purpose, scope and costs, and makes the business case for the new equipment and capacity. The team should brainstorm all the significant tasks needed for the project and generate an initial timeline.
If you are planning on custom equipment, you’re usually in a no-win situation when determining the budget. If your estimate is low and the supplier’s quotes come in high, no one is happy. If your estimate is high, you’ll spend too much time defending the project before it gets started. It’s best to use the experience of the team, and a similar quote, if you have it, to come up with a base cost with a list of incremental cost estimates so there is some built-in justification for each line item. Remember to include materials, travel, consulting, testing, installation, shipping and support equipment.
Agreement on the charter and approval by management may not be available or advisable until after the requirements and specification phases are complete. But, remember that even if the game clock is stopped, the project clock is still ticking even though there isn’t agreement on the project.
The team should have regularly scheduled meetings to stay informed and keep things on track, but you want to avoid it feeling like a chore, so pick a schedule that matches the requirements. Meeting a couple of days in a row might be OK for kick-off, but change to a weekly or biweekly schedule as the situation merits. Bring cookies.
The team will start out as a working group to determine the project charter and tasks, then move into more oversight and review activities. One of the goals of the initial meetings should be to build the team and project ownership. Engaging all of the participants can help this process, a useful exercise is to go around the table and ask if they have worked on a similar project and if they have any stories or advice. If they are concerned about the success of the project, try to use the team to address the concerns.
As far as the primary work product of the meeting, the tasks and schedule should be updated. Look for opportunities to save meeting time by researching items offline before the meeting, such as spending and order status.
Don’t expect 100 percent attendance. That will only be an issue if things aren’t getting done or going well. Have the big boss sit in occasionally for weight, if it’s needed to improve attendance and help with decisions that the group is delaying.
Many accomplishments and decisions will be made by individuals or smaller groups working as a satellite to the project team. A couple of key examples are the specification development meetings or the meetings with the supplier during the proposal review and build. These topical meetings will likely change over time, but they need to have delegates that drive the tasks and provide feedback to the project team. The expectation should be regular status reports with assigned action items. If there is a reporting issue, assign a team member or the project manager to these meetings for support.
Long projects will inevitably have ups and downs that you can’t control. Knowing there will be trouble, what are you going to do about it? You’re probably thinking “How I’m I supposed to fix a theoretical question about a nonexistent project from an unknown author?” Well, you can’t. But, since you know there will be problems, you need to prepare the team and management by putting together a program that looks for problems and communicates their status regularly. I suspect you were assigned this role because a primary function of your job is to solve problems and make decisions. So, since those activities are going to happen anyway, don’t completely hide them behind the scenes.
Progress reports, whether asked for or not, are an excellent way to keep everyone up-to-date on the good and the bad. If you build a weekly report that discloses issues and shows a track record of fixing them, you are banking credibility so that every issue overheard in the hallway doesn’t get you a trip to the principal’s office.
The progress report should be as simple as possible, one page ideally, so it’s read by management and the people working on the project. Unless the project is sensitive, broadcasting the report should be as wide as possible. Include schedule and budget status, significant issues and positive progress. It’s not obvious to highlight the achievement of scheduled progress, so make sure optimism comes through when appropriate. When reporting problems, I suggest adding possible solutions and include the last couple of problems that were solved to show progress. Including major decisions is also a good way to keep everyone up-to-date on the direction of the project. Add a picture to the report if you have something cool to show.
It’s best to use the same format every time so it’s easy to read. Maintaining a common format also means you can generate most of the report during the course of the team meeting. It saves time, minimizes the gap between reporting and reality, and adds weight since you have buy-in from the team.
If your project is ahead of schedule, congratulations! I wouldn’t crow about it too much, though. I would bet that your supplier won’t. The sunny side is nice to contemplate, but the reality is you’ll be putting most of your effort into holding the schedule you put together months ago. The biggest schedule change you should anticipate is when you adopt the first schedule from the supplier. This will likely disagree with the original schedule estimate, so keep that in mind when the team makes the original plans.
The good news is that the supplier wants to ship the new equipment as much or more than you, so you both have the same goal. The trouble is that, depending on who you are dealing with, they might be biased to portray a more or less optimistic view of the schedule. Getting a handle on this is helpful and asking a couple of people at the supplier early on about their philosophy and record may be helpful down the road.
Since you’re obligated to use the supplier’s schedule during the build phase, you’ll need to be more conservative about the schedule for tasks you can control. You can’t plan for a supplier’s schedule slip, but planning your response ahead of time and managing expectations can help when the time comes. Be generous about the time of the acceptance, shipping and installation. Padding these can be justified because there are many unknowns when your company doesn’t have complete control of the resources.
You can reduce technical and schedule risk by determining if you have development efforts that have an unrealistic schedule or a high probability of failure. To manage technical risk, keep an eye on efforts to address high-priority items from the FMEA. A similar exercise on the overall project schedule will help identify what tasks are likely to need backup plans or additional resources. Learning about schedule recovery techniques is also a good exercise before they are needed. They also help with supplier discussions.
A good project schedule is one that you can work on live with the team and easily maintain. I suggest detailing supplier subtasks that have a resolution of about two weeks, so you can respond before it’s too late. The build schedule is owned by the supplier, but it’s only a subset of the overall project, so it needs to be well integrated. If it’s a complicated project, track the bill of materials deliveries for long-lead parts and randomly check on others or get the status of the entire parts list.
Death, taxes and change orders. Just like problems, you should expect change orders. You may even go so far as to support positive changes. Remember that progress through positive change is in the spirit of the new equipment, but change orders are not your friend. They will cost money and time. It also comes across as poor planning, even if it’s driven by a late-stage product change. Use of the team is critical here, since changing the specification or the purchase order will be a distraction and will take up valuable time. The team approach can help with reviewing the change and deciding on the path so it’s handled only once. Always get changes documented by the supplier so there is no confusion.
Also, it’s a good idea to get changes signed off by the same management that approved the initial project, so everyone is aware of the change in scope. No one wants to be in the boss’s office discussing a change order from three months ago.
A successful new equipment project requires the accomplishment of numerous tasks by people that don’t necessarily have all the information they need to align with the project’s goals. Dealing efficiently with the inevitable shortcomings that arise requires that the team is made aware of problems and can solve them promptly. Therefore, building a project system with tools that can detect problems as soon as possible is
critical. Anticipating missteps by looking for failure modes is the best way to lower technical and schedule risks. Solving problems can then be accomplished by a team that works well together and is invested in the successful outcome.
Editor’s note: Verebelyi has 15 years of experience as an engineering manager responsible for activities ranging from R&D to process, product and equipment engineering. His company helps small to midsize manufacturers with problem solving, new equipment projects and other tasks. For more information, call 520-241-9928 or visit https://coscientific.com.