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Going Agile on Industrial Projects

Can agile principles be applied to industrial projects? Yes they can.

Exhaustive detailed planning is one of the key success factors in industrial projects. The precise definition for expensive, critical equipment with long lead times is an important part of project success. This project life cycle is based on the capture and documentation of user requirements in the beginning of the project, followed by a solution design and execution.

The project typically has the following stages: Define -> Design -> Build -> Operate.

However, correct execution of this necessary Define and Design stages usually faces some or all of these difficulties:

  • inadequate coordination between engineering disciplines

  • poor communication flow between end users and engineers

  • lack of visualization of the final product for the end users

  • inability to leaving options for optimization as more information is obtained from suppliers

  • not all requirements can be captured in the beginning of the project and many can change as clients begin to visualize proposed solutions

How can the agile principles laid out in Agile Manifesto and intended for software development help us overcome these issues?

The Agile Manifesto

Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.

Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.

Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.

Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

Build projects around motivated individuals.

Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

Working software is the primary measure of progress.

Agile processes promote sustainable development.

The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

Simplicity--the art of maximizing the amount of work not done--is essential.

The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Incorporating new requirements late in the project life cycle of industrial projects is a dangerous option. Once fabrication of key equipment (e.g. boiler or heat exchanger) has begun, changing its specifications will lead to delays and additional cost. Many of the early design decisions made in industrial project leave you locked-in limit the potential solution space. So changing this Define -> Design -> Build -> Operate sequence in industrial projects is not recommend.

However, many of the agile principles can be incorporated into the Define and Design stages of an industrial project. These stages of an industrial project can be managed as a software project.

By applying agile principles, many of the traditional difficulties mentioned earlier are resolved. New design tools based on Building Information Modelling (BIM) technology create the possibility to create intelligent, integrated and realistic software models of the industrial project that can be quickly cross reviewed by engineering teams, end users and suppliers. A digital twin of the industrial plant is "constructed" before actual construction begins.

More user requirements appear earlier in the project because end users have a clear visualization of final product through the 3D model enhanced with Virtual Reality (VR) technology. The cost of change and adaption to new user requirements that appear during this stage are a fraction of the cost once the real construction has begun.

Success in industrial projects will require project managers that can work with dual project management approaches: agile-oriented design combined with rigorous construction management during execution.

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