From the second a process system project is approved, throughout the process equipment design, and until the day it is smoothly running in your facility, you are working hard to make sure that it is completed on time and on budget. Project scheduling has a major effect on whether your project is a success for internal stakeholders like production and finance.
The first thing to understand about how to successfully manage project timeline is that there is no magic pre-determined timeframe. Every project is unique and organizational pressures combined with factors like the complexity of the system being built and lead time on equipment will have a major effect. That being said, there are some things you can do to make sure your project timeline is appropriate and progressing the way it should.
Best Practices for Keeping Process Projects on Track
What needs to take place along the way to get your process system designed, built, and running smoothly at your facility on time?
1. Develop Milestone Dates
Start by developing a list of milestones for your project and set dates to them in accordance with the final due date. By identifying key milestones and recognizing when they need to be completed by, you’ve started to determine specific action items for the project. Examples of common milestones are as follows:
- Request for Quote Development and Bidding
- Subcontractor Selection Complete
- Physical Process Equipment Design Review
- Long-Lead Equipment Procurement Dates
- System Assembly & Fabrication
- Factory Acceptance Testing (FAT)
- Site Acceptance Testing (SAT)
- Turnover and Completion
Once you have a list of milestone dates, work backward from your desired completion date to map out timeframes and figure out if you have too much, just enough, or too little time to complete the project and then adjust accordingly. Part of managing a process system project is realistically setting internal expectations for how long each of the milestones will take to reach.
2. Review Critical Path Activities
Critical path activities are things that MUST happen before the next phase of work can be completed on your project. For example, you cannot assemble a batch mixing system without the batch mixing tanks, so having those tanks on-hand at the fabricator’s facility is a critical path activity.
Identify your critical path activities and then determine any roadblocks (ex. Specifying, ordering, and shipping time) that need to be built into the schedule. Then, figure out what else can be happening to move the project forward while you are waiting on critical path activities. For example, using a modular design/build contractor for process equipment design and fabrication of skids can speed up projects by allowing off-site skid fabrication to take place during on-site plant modifications.
3. Make Someone Responsible for Each Milestone
Nothing moves things along like making someone personally responsible for ensuring each milestone happens. Depending on the complexity of the job, responsible personnel may all be internal, or you may be subcontracting work out to various engineering and construction companies.
Regardless of whether the job takes three internal employees, or 15 internal employees and four subcontractors and two consultants, it is essential to identify who is working on what and when it will be completed. In knowing this you will be able to effectively push the project down the field and closer to the goal line, without key components getting stuck in the bottleneck of not having enough resources.
4. Front-load Engineering: Process Equipment Design Work
Quick quotes and vague conversations about process flow diagrams are not enough to truly understand what a process system project is going to require. You can’t plan lead times for equipment if you aren’t sure exactly which pieces of equipment are going to be needed.
This is where Front-End Engineering Design or Front-End Loading come in handy. Have your internal design team or a process design firm spend 2-3 weeks developing a detailed quote and completing basic process equipment design up-front. This is design work that has to be done anyway, and it will give you a much better idea of how the overall project will progress (and cost). Common deliverables coming out of an FEED effort include:
- Mass and Energy Balances
- Refined P&ID’s
- Equipment, Valve and Instrumentation Lists
- Estimated Project Timelines
- Basic 2D and/or 3D Models
- Detailed and Exact or +/- 10% Quotes
5. Build in Regular Progress Updates & Peer Reviews
Most process systems are complicated and will involve a lot of people to develop. Regular check-ins with each major milestone stakeholder is a must for keeping projects on track and problem solving unanticipated challenges along the way.
Peer reviews are also a good idea, especially on the engineering and process equipment design. Having a group of people weigh in regularly on engineering designs will ensure simple mistakes are caught before fabrication begins and therefore before they become expensive. This is also a good way to involve technical stakeholders to ensure their needs are being met as practical system design progresses.
6. Set Realistic But Firm Expectations
Finally, make sure your project schedule is fair to all involved. Deadlines are important, but no one is going to be happy about speeding through a project to an end result that doesn’t work right, or constantly feeling pressured because timelines are not realistic. Your job as the project manager is to set realistic but aggressive expectations for all stakeholders and vendors.
Remember to plan for checkpoints, process equipment design and procurement lead times, shipping, and any overtime that will occur on your end to accomplish this. Lay out the expectations and the deliverables ahead of time, so that everyone involved knows what they are on the hook for. Then conduct regular progress updates to hold them to those expectations.
There may be times when someone important demands a fast-track timeframe that is actually impossible. When that is the case, respectfully let them know that their expectations are not realistic and propose a fair alternative. By developing a schedule that is fair to you, suppliers, and project partners, everyone can finish the project feeling proud of the work that was done. Plus, you’ll get a big win in all the stakeholders’ minds, which is great for landing that next promotion or bonus.