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Why Systems Engineering is Essential in EPC Projects

Engineering Procurement Construction Project management, or EPC for short, contains Engineering as a key delivery.  And one step further than general engineering is Systems Engineering which is the extension of the increasing demand to add technical capacity for today’s more and more complex projects.  And it is crucial for your project to get the system right!
Systems Engineering is about balancing the risks and processes in EPC Projects in terms of schedule and cost overruns by implementing systems engineering processes to facilitate the project cost at the optimal minimum while having enough visibility of the overall risks and still delivering the proper quality and proper functional and efficient system.  Read that 3 times fast!  In short, if there is an illness or ‘symptom’ in the project and it is not due to a communication break-down, this usually means there is an error within the system.

Systems Engineering has to comply with the technical requirements for the project and deliver what is required to make the project work, but this does not mean providing the bare minimum or delivering unreasonable standards for the sake of staying within time and budget. This requires special skills of which they don’t teach you in project management courses.  Some of these skills include business understanding from technical leaders in all industries with the necessary leadership, and of course, engineering knowledge not limited to the industry only.  For example, I am an EPC project manager, but this does not mean that I should not learn anything about IT project management.  Just because I am mainly in large-scale construction projects does not mean that most of my projects do not have an IT element in them.  It has served me best to familiarize myself and learn as much about IT as I can as it relates to my industry.  In short, having a wide range of engineering knowledge to see the project as a system and, at the end of the project, a working system which provides the necessary revenue, profits and functionality.

From my experience in EPC projects, many contractors just deliver a product or a service, but not a system.  And systems are crucial for successful EPC Projects. It may make the project look cheaper at the beginning, but it can have a very painful impact towards the end of the project when the system integration does not work or the “System” is not operational or operational with a reduced functionality.  In fact, it can end up costing MORE time and money in the end than originally projected.  So, as the saying goes, you can do things right the first time or risk doing them over again!

What clients and end-users want is usually quite simple:  they want a working/operational solution with the promised performance and with the right quality assurance (delivered on time and within budget). To deliver that “wish,” effective communication between the systems engineer and the client is required. In most cases, this takes “out of the box” thinking and creativity to deliver the required benefits of a complete system with the most optimal investment. This is where the key is:

In my EPC courses I explain the relationship between the three different disciplines from Engineering, Procurement and Construction. First of all, an EPC project is actually a program which combines a set of related programs. Thinking in terms of Star wars, EPC is like the mothership of a project and all the components involved are the smaller ships.  This elevates the EPC project to a new level, where a bird’s-eye-view (AKA mothership view) on the different components, products and even sub-systems is required. As a combination, all of this needs to be integrated in terms of interfacing, scope, time, money and risk.

The procurement part of EPC has to also be taken care of, and this should be in the contracts with individual suppliers and sub-contractors. To support procurement, the program manager should also have this bird’s-eye-view to manage the individual project manager or supervisor. To ensure a smooth system integration, the Systems Engineer needs to have a similar position to coordinate technical interfaces between the different parties up to the operational interfaces where the client or end-user is involved. Linking these systems engineering activities with the program timeline is essential for the success of your EPC projects.

Taking it one step further; in some cases, there are components required which are outside the scope of your project but need to be addressed so that you can ensure a successful project outcome. With the bird’s-eye-view of the program manager and the systems engineer, these topics can be addressed to stakeholders outside your scope of work as they may not be aware about the importance of each components’ delivery.  On a side note, when dealing with stakeholders and clients, explain things simply.  Not everyone can speak ‘Engineer!’

To learn systems engineering takes time, though a couple of completed EPC projects to gain the necessary experience wouldn’t hurt. In fact, I highly recommend it, even if it means going under the wing of a more experienced project manager for a few projects.  Education is always an asset in the end!


Peter Wyss