Machine and Process Management

Managing Risk Behind Bars : Project management approach to control system migration


I recently visited a jail in the U.S., not because I had committed a crime or anything like that but actually to write a case study as part of my present job in marketing. I remember from my days as a controls engineer (yes, I have spent some time behind bars in the past) that one of the more interesting applications of industrial automation is the controlling of door locks within the jail. PLC technology lends itself very well to this application. Jails require a number of digital inputs and outputs, a central control room, incorporation of  interlocks (which must be OK before anything can happen), interface with external fire and PA systems, etc.

Automation systems have been deployed in U.S. prisons and jails since the late 1980’s and, like any other automation products, these security systems eventually become obsolete and need to be upgraded. Also, like any other automation systems, these systems are at the very heart of operations and any upgrades must be executed quickly and with attention to managing any risk.  There are many manual safeguards in the typical prison, which help to avoid any serious security risks in the case of system failures. But, it is fair to say that if things don’t go well during an automation upgrade, added stress to inmates and prison personnel may result.

During my visit I learned that for the upgrade project facility management made one jail floor available for work by moving inmates to other floors. The teams had about a week to do their work and return the floor in full operation so inmates could move back in. I write ‘teams’ as plural since multiple companies would be working on the target floor at any one time, further complicating the coordination challenge.

Obviously things must have gone reasonably well during the project, because after we executed the automation upgrade, I was allowed to visit the prison to interview the captain in charge.  Here are some of the things he told me he viewed as keys successes to part of the project:

  • Assign a project manager to act as single point of contact for the duration of the project. This includes coordinating all installation and commissioning activities on site.
  • Assemble the right team of experts. Many of these older systems are lacking in documentation and a lot of off-site ‘detective work’ must be done to figure out, for example, what all the I/O wiring does and generate new documentation to assist with installation and ongoing trouble shooting.
  • Plan and be ready when it is time to go to the site. In this case we were competing for time on the active floor with fire system, public address and other suppliers, all of whom had upgrade work to do. You need to be ready with upgraded drawings, software and the right material and personnel, to execute with surgical precision.
  • Partner with the right contractors and distributors to support you in the field. Local relationships and application knowledge are critical to the success of some of these projects. Don’t be afraid to leverage another company’s experience.

So, the right team of people and a disciplined project management approach can pay great dividends when it comes to executing an automation upgrade at an operating facility. It is also evident that leveraging a team that has a solid plan and knows how to work efficiently will make all the difference when managing risk. The management of the jail I visited valued our efforts enough to let us write a success story about it. I very much appreciate that. I also appreciate the fact that I was allowed to leave!

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