Big Projects

So the company I work for has decided to move a bunch of equipment from one plant to another that will effectively fill the holes we have here in a major production area and then create another expanded minor production area. Truly it is exciting stuff. Since I am working this weekend I thought I would take a break and run down a few of important details when doing a major construction project outside of just dealing with contractors. I think that I have covered the “what to do while the project is running” details before, so this is more the beginning work that occurs.

Planning and permits:

This is sometimes your second step instead of the first but typically it needs to be the first one. When beginning a major project you will need just a general plan get started, goals, basic outline of equipment needed, and an idea of any permits needed. Almost every major project has a goal, something like increased production, energy savings, equipment upgrade, or equipment improvement. Once these basics are listed classify things as a replacement in kind (essentially an equipment swap, no permitting needed), if it will have energy savings, if it will need additional energy, water, air, etc, or could cause pollution. It is important to note that most municipalities now have tax incentives for shown energy savings improvements that can be seen in 1-5 years (up to $40k in rebates dependant on areas), but you have to apply for these rebates up front before the project begins. Once the equipment is installed and running it is too late, I learned this the hard way with a pair of new Trane chillers that were installed at the plant. I found out about the tax credits after the work was complete and nothing was available for us. Also mentioned was the possibility of new power, water, or even air requirements. All will require coordination with the local municipalities for the upgrade and usually permits for construction. Finally the new equipment may need air permits or construction permits to cover government regulations. It is all dependant on what is installed and if any pollution or other materials could be exhausted into the atmosphere or leaked into the ground.

Real planning and project design:

This step is the one that can sometimes swap with step listed above; it will really depend on the project. Every big project requires three things: project scope, project timeline, and project design. For me the most important thing is the project scope. The scope should have all of the guts needed to complete the project successfully. I like to best lay everything out in the scope in an outline, and just list every little detail into it from equipment needed to little things like, “make sure the equipment manuals are included” and “what are the preventative maintenance measures needed for this device”. When I do that I know that as the project continues along I will be able to check off every detail. Typically the next part for me is moving that whole scope into some sort of project timeline software (I use Microsoft Project). I don’t necessarily include all the little details like I do in the scope but the encompassing work for those little details. This part is where to assign a time frame to each task. My advice is to use realistic time frames and realize what can truly be completed in parallel and what cannot. As a young process engineer I made many mistakes with this part by only inserting the best possible outcome for dates and when things didn’t pan out perfectly then I looked like an idiot who didn’t have an idea of what I am doing. See this timeline is typically what your boss sees and your boss’s boss sees and they expect the project to be completed in that timeframe. After all, you made the timeline and you should know what it would take finish the work. So be careful and be realistic because this may be all they ever look at. One other piece of advice is to avoid applying real concrete dates until the project is actually started. Meaning I could make a plan for stuff to occur tomorrow but if the work doesn’t begin until two weeks from tomorrow then my boss may think that I am actually two weeks behind from my plan. Again egg on face occurring. Be careful.

Last in this step is the project design. I think a lot of people make two mistakes while doing this step. The first is that they skip the project scope part, which I think is the most important step. This typically causes the designer to get way too caught up designing without planning, and can typically cause a bunch of double work. With a scope in hand, the designer is simply drawing out the details already known; it is really like a visual checklist. The second is that they can make things too complicated. Designers can easily get into a “paralysis of analysis” when looking at big projects. It is important to be extremely detailed in design but realize when it is important have fine detail and when that pipefitter is going to figure out himself how to cut a whole in the wall and shove a tube through. Again to me the scope is the most important part, it should be there to make sure every minute thing is covered and checked off, the literal design is more of a guide for the project work. Of course this is coming from the guy who is the engineering department, with more people involved in the design process perhaps a bit more detail can be made in the drawings. I just don’t have the time.

Gathering of the usual suspects:

It all comes back to contractors, and this step is usually one of the most difficult. The reason why is that typically you want contractors to see the project, give you a bid the next day, and work shortly thereafter. Reality is to get your contractors in early so that they can have a little time to put together a realistic quote. The more stuff the contractors know about before the bid delivery date, then the more likely the bid will be accurate and cost effective. Contractors are used to this process and for everything they “don’t” know about they will add a “fudge” factor price to cover those costs. So give them a little bit of time to get things gathered. Also, make sure you are sharing the same thing to each contractor; otherwise you are not comparing equal quotes from competing contractors.

Make sure to parade the contractors through the work area and allow them to come in any time during the bidding period to work out some of the little details with their workers and possible sub-contractors. Each should get some sort of copy of the project scope and project plan. The project timeline needs to be shared with them as well, so that they could let you know if any changes to the schedule are needed, like the concrete truck can’t make it that day.

Remember with contractors the mottos are “be firm but fair” and “trust but verify”. They will bend over backwards to make you happy if you are fair with a good contractor, but push people around all of the time, they can just as easily screw you over. Walk that line, but remember whose butt is on the line (hint its not there’s).

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