Engineers being the problem solvers that they are, typically enjoy a project in full execution mode. Problems must be quickly confronted and solved to keep everything moving forward. As we’ve mentioned in earlier posts, the part they typically like least is the upfront justification to get the projects approved in the first place.
Emerson’s Pete Sharpe, a principal consultant in the Advanced Automation Services organization, shared his thoughts on automation investment justification with the readers of Automation World magazine. The article, Strengthen Company, Minimize Risk, pointed to areas of opportunity for project justification.
Pete’s guidance is to look at the economic buckets your efforts in automation can influence, which boils down to increasing profits and minimizing risk. Simply put:
To increase profits, “you must either increase revenues or lower costs,” he emphasizes. Revenue is a bucket on the positive side of the formula that is affected by things like throughput, yields, recoveries or product price. That means “you have to shift production toward the more valuable products, or increase yield, reduce off-spec, product losses and downgrades of product,” Sharpe states. Cost-lowering considerations could involve maintenance, labor, energy, utilities or raw materials, among other areas.
Pete cites an example of looking at quality. Poor quality can lead to customer rejection, off spec and rework. Providing better quality than is specified in the contract is called “quality giveaway”. It likely means additional costs are being incurred without receiving additional price for this quality. This is particularly relevant to commodity markets such as gasoline and diesel. Other potential sources of justification are in intangible costs like safety and environmental compliance.
Minimizing risk is about reducing the probability that something bad will occur in the plant’s operation. These projects focus on improving reliability, safety, environmental liability, and dealing with abnormal situations. Risk can be evaluated based on the frequency and severity of historical incidents. Then appropriate application of technology and programs designed to mitigate the highest risk areas by applying such things as predictive maintenance, operator training systems or abnormal situation prevention technologies.
The key is to look for how your project will affect the throughput, production costs and total production value on an on-going basis. Ultimately, the expected financial return of the project will determine whether the project goes forward or not. The article sums this up:
…the ultimate metric for justifying investments is ROI. He notes that it includes the time value of money, and calculation of returns based on expected future cash flows from the investment.
In most companies, the management team evaluates potential projects based on the expected return and the risk associated with the investment. The projects with the highest rate of return and lowest perceived risk are those that will likely be funded. In almost all cases, the project return must exceed the manufacturer’s cost of capital, which varies depending on company. Pete notes that there are exceptions where a low return, discretionary project is approved. This could be a “stay-in-business” investment decision, which ultimately is about reducing overall business risk.