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Effective Manufacturing Construction Project Management: On Site, and On It

Dedicated 100 percent from design through start-up, an on-site owner’s representative solves problems and adds value by assuring coordination of trades and maintaining project focus.

John Hernandez, Section Manager, SSOE Group (Q3 2014)
Projects go faster with advocates. A project engineer (or construction project coordinator) is an owner’s representative who champions the needs of the project above all others and remains dedicated 100 percent to the job from design through startup. In the process, he or she adds value by solving problems.

As an example, take the cooker that almost missed production season.

A new process line was being installed to help a food manufacturer meet the demands of the rapidly approaching “production season.” A central player in the process line was a new hydrostatic cooker. It was not delivered with industrial-grade pumps, as expected, but with commercial-grade pumps. The pumps needed to be upgraded as soon as possible; however, the pumps were furnished by the cooker manufacturer in Europe, and having the manufacturer return the pumps received and order new ones would take too long to arrive on-site.

Rather than waiting for the correct model of pump to be shipped from overseas, the owner’s representative attempted to meet the deadline in a different way. He recommended ordering the pump from the domestic supplier that provides other pumps in the plant, then sorting out payment issues with the original supplier later. Problem solved; schedule maintained. Keeping a project on time and on budget is a necessity when time is money. Throughout the lifecycle of a project, an experienced on-site owner’s rep serves as a valuable resource to the staff project engineer or to the plant manager. Lyman Stone, Economist, the Tax Foundation’s Center for State Tax Policy

Maintaining Project Focus
Throughout the lifecycle of a program or project, an experienced on-site owner’s rep serves as a valuable resource to the staff project engineer or to the plant manager, both of whom have multiple accountabilities. The staff project engineer may be based at corporate headquarters and may travel among various project sites, while the plant manager focuses primarily on production. In these cases, the on-site rep can keep the project team focused on the approved project scope to avoid “scope creep,” i.e., uncontrolled changes or added objectives that might otherwise compromise the schedule and exceed the project budget.

To keep scope creep at bay during a project requires the ability to bring together all of the stakeholders in one place, at one time, in order to resolve the issues that arise during the course of any capital project. In the above example, the on-site owner’s rep had an office trailer delivered to the site weeks before construction began. The trailer office provided stakeholders with a meeting place outside their offices and plant conference rooms — avoiding potential interruptions — enabling them to concentrate on design reviews and project coordination.

In addition, the owner’s rep maintained a complete, up-to-date library of all project documents. These were available to any stakeholder who needed to refer to them at any point during the project.

Hiring the Right Person for the Job
An on-site owner’s rep must have a clear understanding of the mission, objectives, and project scope. For this reason, it is important to hire the rep at the conceptual design phase, especially for a large, complex project. He or she also must have the ability to work under a tight schedule. The rep also must have engineering and construction experience. It is extremely rare to find an individual who has all of the structural, civil, electrical, instrumentation, and mechanical knowledge required to manage any manufacturing construction or installation project. That’s why the individual must have ready access to experts in other disciplines when necessary. Ideally, this expertise is in-house at the rep’s firm.

The right person for the job must be able to gain the trust of the project team and, in some cases, overcome the resistance that often goes with the territory. Professional engineering credentials provide credibility, but even more important are tact, persistence, and a collaborative approach that comes from the simple fact that these people have a plant to run! To be sure, the capital project will ultimately increase the productivity of their plant, but until then, production goals must be met. If the owner’s rep has been involved in past projects, that history can help to overcome resistance, as well as provide valuable practical and cultural experience.

This rep may be hired from several sources, e.g., from the ranks of current employees, from one of the consulting engineering firms on the project, or from another engineering firm with no other contracts for the project. What are the advantages and risks of each of these choices?

Current Employee:
Pro: A current employee knows the organization’s project team and the chain of command for review and approvals. Con: However, the individual may not be local or may be over-committed with simultaneous projects, or both in the worst-case scenario.

Member of one of the consulting engineering firms on the project:
Pro: A member of one of the consulting engineering firms on the project is either local or will relocate for the duration of the project and will be dedicated to the job 100 percent of the time. The person may also have experience on previous projects, broad industry experience, or transferable experience and insights from other manufacturing sectors. Moreover, this person is likely to have ready access to experts in other disciplines as necessary. Con: Nevertheless, if there is no prior experience with the firm, the person will need to learn the organization and earn the trust of local employees.

Member of a firm with no other project contract:
Pro: Finally, a consultant who is a member of a firm with no other project contract can exhibit 100-percent dedication and the freedom from any perception of conflicting loyalties among the owner’s project team and other contractors. This person may also have experience on previous projects, broad experience in the industry, or transferable experience and insights from other manufacturing sectors.

Con: However, if the independent owner’s rep is hired after the design has been completed, a great deal of time can be lost on the learning curve to reach full understanding of the project scope and organization. That learning usually equates to lost time and increased cost.

In Sum
Effective management of any construction project in a manufacturing environment is a full-time job. By hiring the rep to work on-site, it is possible to assure coordination of trades and maintain project focus. Investing in such a consultant will save time (and, therefore, money) in completing a manufacturing project. Being on-site is the only sure way to be on it.
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