Turn-Key Design-Build SCADA – It Works!

design-build-scadaSCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) systems are fundamental to monitor and control water and wastewater plant operations. Key process indicators at the enterprise level are driven by data collection within the SCADA system. More and more utilities are completely dependent on SCADA for protection of public health and safety.

However, the complexities of project procurement, software implementation, commissioning and optimization are not always understood and navigating these hurdles can be difficult. The owner faces a high degree of risk in interfacing with multiple stakeholders to deliver a successful project. For these and other reasons, utilities are turning to rigorous pre-qualification methods and alternate project delivery methods, such as “turn-key” design-build SCADA projects, and similar approaches to mitigate risks associated with these services.

Challenges Unique to SCADA Projects

SCADA projects typically encounter the following risks in delivery that should be carefully understood when determining the appropriate delivery method for the project:

  • Procurement methods: SCADA projects contain project elements that are routinely associated with contractor work, such as electrical work, panel fabrication, mechanical work, and physical instrument and hardware installation. However, these projects also involve specific types of work that are more commonly associated with professional services, such as software and application engineering and configuration, network management, control strategy deployment, alarm management, and facilitating coordination with operating staff during commissioning and acceptance. There are challenges in the municipal environment related to determining how to “bundle” these SCADA-related services, such as the software configuration services.
  • Short technology product lifecycles: Product life cycles (especially in the context of technology products) are becoming shorter and shorter. A common problem with most SCADA projects is the technical obsolescence of equipment (both software and hardware) from time of design to time of acceptance and operation. Specifically, conventional delivery methods separate the designer from direct coordination with the supply chain, in order to ensure a competitive environment in the bidding process. These limitations are counter-productive and reduce coordination with the supply chain. As a result, the installed SCADA product (for example the software, servers or computers), may meet bid document performance requirements, but may also be well along or close to the end of their product life-cycle by the time acceptance periods are over and the owner accepts the equipment.

Assessing Methods of SCADA Project Delivery

To mitigate risks inherent in SCADA project delivery, owners historically try to focus on the following:

  • Design and specification: Team focus is on stringent contract specification development, since it is then assumed that there will be effective enforcement and execution during construction
  • Standardization: Guidance documents are produced to standardize SCADA software and hardware, nomenclature, and philosophies and methods of monitoring, control, alarm management and data handling
  • Procurement buying, supplier relationship management: This might include the pre-purchase of software and/or hardware components by the owner, or the pre-selection of systems integrators and contractors

These approaches cannot mitigate all risks, and in some cases, they introduce complexity into the projects with numerous stakeholders and an ever-increasing need to carefully define contractor and third-party interface boundaries. Modifying the contracting strategy is more difficult to accomplish. However, for SCADA projects that have complex procurement models and rely on rapidly changing supply chain technologies and products, modifying the contract delivery strategy can be one of the best ways to deliver “best value” to the owner.

Most owners decide to procure SCADA and automation work under a classic “Design-Bid-Build” approach. Project interfaces are shown in DBB Framework for SCADA Projects. This approach is highly dependent on the quality of the systems integrator. Construction manager supervision of commissioning critical. Additionally, this approach frequently leads to misinterpretation, numerous RFIs on the requirements for displays, HMI graphics and PLC logic. The automation engineer may find themselves literally “standing over the shoulder” of the contractor’s programmer to direct them as to what to edit or change in the logic.

Given the risks inherent to having the software engineering highly dependent on the quality of a low bid process, municipalities often opt to pre-select the systems integrator through a selection process. Project interfaces are shown in DBB with SCADA Systems Integration. This allows the owner to fully vet the qualifications for their capital project deliveries. The engineer may be selected to self-perform the integration and configuration of the automation systems. The number of RFIs is reduced, and the engineer leads working sessions to “fine-tune” process controls. Drawbacks to this approach are that there are still inherent risks in the owner/ contractor interface, and the owner is required to interface with multiple stakeholders for project completion.

An attractive project delivery approach is to concentrate all responsibilities onto one entity, such that a “turn-key” solution is furnished to the owner. Project interfaces for the DB model are shown in ”Turn-Key” DB Framework for SCADA Projects. The inherent risks associated with managing software and hardware subcontractors, and in translating the owner’s desired platform software features into reality are transferred to the contracting entity. The general contractor self-performs the entire SCADA system installation, from design, through construction, and into configuration, commissioning and startup services. Cost reduction is achieved with multiple layers of administrative functions removed. A simplified interface for the owner offers a single point of responsibility for project updates, progress and accountability.

Opportunities Driven by the Design-Build “Turn-Key” Approach to SCADA

Planning early in the delivery life-cycle. The “turn-key” DB approach to SCADA actually incentivizes detailed planning up front, allowing direct coordination with subcontractors and supply chain procurement. This reduces “unknowns” during execution due to SCADA technology integration, reducing contract changes and mitigating one of the biggest risks facing Design-Bid-Build delivery models. The DB delivery model for SCADA forces decision-making as soon as discrepancies are noted. If a discrepancy is noted that affects the guaranteed cost of the turn-key SCADA solution, a resolution is needed immediately. This motivates the DB team to plan well in advance and develop a complete detailed design prior to project execution.

Streamlining of supply chain and procurement. From a supply chain perspective, specific products can be selected based on function and performance. Specific products can be discussed with the owner. Components can be directly coordinated with supply chain manufacturers and subcontractors. This eliminates key risks with the traditional model of DBB SCADA procurement: the need to reduce the performance requirements to provide for “or equal” components, or obsolescence due to technology changes. The DB team (with the owner) can select the “best in class” at the time of installation, install tested and proven technologies that will last and select warranty contracts that can be respected. Warranty periods can be directly negotiated, so that any negative technology life-cycle impacts to the owner are minimized.

Accountability for performance. Contractor SCADA costs (and performance) vary tremendously. How does the owner determine adequacy and quality in procurement? For instance, at bid time using a conventional design-bid-build model of delivery, a SCADA project may receive bids that vary widely. The lowest price will secure the award, and that contractor will perform the contract work.

However, several questions must be asked:

  • Is the SCADA performance going to be adequate?
  • Are all quality checks being done for SCADA delivery?
  • Is the contractor outsourcing certain SCADA configuration work?
  • Will there be problems in the documentation of the SCADA programming?
  • Are SCADA downloads being done remotely over public networks?
  • Is the utility’s network security compromised?
  • Are there risks in SCADA commissioning and delivery?

The owner needs to consider how these risks would be controlled using the conventional DBB model. Conversely, an effective DB process, specifically the PDB (Progressive), is rarely done purely based on price. Selection is based on a detailed qualifications process (RFQ/RFP) and the selection is based on “best value”. Trust is involved. Relationship building, behavioral attitudes, and team-building are key. The contractor for a conventional DBB process only focuses on building what is in the bid documents, recognizing that any liability for SCADA problems with the built solution sits with the engineer that has sealed those drawings. The design-build process flips this concept on its head. The contractor is liable for the entire system, including the performance and any design problems or flaws. The DB contractor has an incentive to work for proper operation and performance, as any functional liability sits with the DB team.

Without a doubt, considering cheaper, alternative project delivery methods, water providers can successfully deploy enhanced SCADA platforms to monitor and control their water systems, thereby providing significant health benefits to the communities they serve.


Kowalski , Ryan J., Niu E., Kowalski E. G., Hurst C., “Best Practices in SCADA Project Delivery: Reducing Cost and Mitigating Risk through “Turn-Key” Design-Build Projects”, Paper and Podium Presentation, Water Environment Federation 87th Annual Technical Exhibition & Conference (WEFTEC), presented at Session 616  “Alternative Project Delivery Methods in Practice”. New Orleans Morial Convention Center, New Orleans, Louisiana USA, September 29 – October 3, 2014.

The Municipal Water and Wastewater Design-Build Handbook (2014), 3rd Edition, Water Design Build Council, pp. 8-10.


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