The Proverbial "Copy Job"

Post by 
Daniel Deery, PE, SE
Published 
April 7, 2021

This blog is the second installment of a three-part series focused on discussing some of the most common mistakes we see project stakeholders make. We’ll explore the motivations that drive decision-makers to repeat these mistakes, how those decisions almost always play out, and the slightly different lens that should have been applied to the problem in the first place.

The first post addressed the temptation to jump on a low bid, whether it be for professional services or construction. This post will focus on the dangers of assuming a project is simply a copy of another one. The final installment will address the temptation to postpone as much engineering as possible until a financial commitment is made to move forward with a project. When we post the final blog, we’ll link it in this paragraph to make it easy to navigate between all three parts of this series.

So, you think you’re ready to start on your new project, and it’s simply a copy of your last one. If you’ve been around the engineering and construction business long, you’ve probably heard someone say, “There’s no such thing as a copy job!” This is the reality for probably 99% of all projects given the dubious distinction of “copy job.” Almost everyone that’s been around our industry for a while has a story or two to share about the elusive “copy job,” and most of them are wrought with frustration, change, delay, and higher-than-expected cost.

Almost everyone that’s been around our industry for a while has a story or two to share about the elusive “copy job,” and most of them are wrought with frustration, change, delay, and higher-than-expected cost.

But wait - what could be simpler? You and the team just spent the last 18 - 24 months immersed in the EPC process, and even though there were a couple of bumps in the road, you now have a fully operational facility. You’re hitting production ramp-up goals and making money according to plan. The next logical step? Start the process all over again - right? The next project will be even more profitable since it will cost less because the design is already finished. All you need to do now is find a site and confirm feedstock, logistics, and off-take partners, right?

Not so fast. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but many things must be considered. Some may be obvious, and some not as much. All of them need to be carefully evaluated as you begin your planning, and most will undoubtedly impact the cost and execution of the copy project.

The first thing to consider is any design changes introduced and implemented during the construction, check-out, and start-up phases of the original project. If these changes were hastily field applied and have not been fully implemented back into the design documents, you should spend the time and effort to ensure you have a good design starting point for the copy project. Additionally, were there any other lessons learned or best practices from the first project that will impact the copy project’s design or execution? These all need to be thoroughly evaluated for their impact on the project’s scope, cost, and schedule.

Next, you must consider the location of the new project. High-level considerations such as the new site’s governing building code, geotechnical conditions, and seismic zone could impact many components of the design if different from the original site. I worked on a project site with such an irregular soil profile that the seismic zone varied from one area of the project site to the other! One area of the site required special details, impacting design, material, and construction costs, while the other was a more conventional design. Even if you’re building the copy job on the same site as the original, you must perform due diligence and expand upon the initial survey and geotechnical work if it does not cover the new area.

Further to the site location, another consideration is the current state of the project site.  Is it a greenfield site (undeveloped, typically agricultural area that is uncomplicated and straightforward for construction), or is it a brownfield site (previously developed, typically in need of significant demolition, modification, or even cleanup)? There are trade-offs to consider for each. While typically easier to construct on, greenfield sites may require considerable capital investment to access utilities such as power, water, sewer, natural gas, etc. On the other hand, brownfield sites may require significant work to prepare for new construction but may have access to some or all the utilities without additional infrastructure investment based on the previous property use. Either way, the actual site details will likely be different between the original and the copy project, and their impact on the design and execution must be considered.

The one consideration I’ve seen clients struggle with the most is selecting major process equipment – both the technology and the supplier. If you truly want a copy job, you need to buy exact duplicates of all process equipment, primarily the major process equipment - but it is also best to extend that philosophy to secondary items such as utility and support equipment, electrical equipment, instrumentation, valves, etc. What seems like a simple change can often impact hundreds of design deliverables if you understand how intertwined each document is.  This means your procurement process may be quite different the second go-around.  Competitive bids are likely not a possibility. Instead, you’ll be focusing on questions such as: Are the same vendors still available, is the initially purchased model still available, has the cost changed, and what is the lead time? These are all points that need to be considered, and any deviations mean there are extra loose ends to tie up. You may not be able to approach the procurement process looking to drive the lowest cost for each item purchased because you need to focus on the technical details to ensure the associated design, based on the original equipment, can be re-used. That’s where the real savings can be realized.

The final thing that needs to be evaluated when faced with the proverbial “copy” job is choosing your engineering and construction partners. Ideally, those two would be the same entities you worked with on the first project since they know the original design, construction specifics, and lessons learned. Even if you can’t get the same team, that doesn’t mean you can’t still make the copy approach work; it will just be more challenging. Experienced vendors aren’t hard to find, but you need to dedicate effort and time going through the process of identification and pre-qualification early so you can get the right resources on board in the planning phase.

We always help our clients find the best solution for their business and their vision. If duplicating a well-designed, well-built, well-operating facility is the best approach, then that’s absolutely what we will support.

I want to close this post by saying that we always help our clients find the best solution for their business and their vision. If duplicating a well-designed, well-built, well-operating facility is the best approach, then that’s absolutely what we will support. Our team has first-hand previous experience “copying” two major industrial facilities for two different clients and has dealt with at least “partial copy projects” on a regular basis. We have found ways to value engineer and optimize the design and execution through these experiences. One example from one of our partner’s past experiences was as close to a real “copy job” as you will ever see. The major equipment was the same, the site was the same, and the design team was the same. My partner devised a computer scripting process to modify original project drawings with project-specific information such as Northing, Easting, tag numbers, and key title block information. Some significant lessons learned and even scope changes were incorporated, but the owner realized 75% savings in base design cost even with these changes!

Hopefully, you now appreciate some of the main items that need to be considered when you think “copy job.” If you read this blog post and only take one thing away, let it be this – copy jobs aren’t necessarily bad, and you don’t need to avoid them.  Just make sure you have considered the numerous ways your “copy job” could be different from the original, so you don’t end up with costly surprises in the end. Don’t talk yourself into thinking your project is an exact copy; find someone who has experience with this type of approach. Let someone with experience lead you through the early planning and design process, at least until you have established the project scope, high-level estimate, project team, and complete execution strategy. Be sure to consider the points I’ve discussed in this post; chances are high it will pay for itself many times over.

Just make sure you have considered the numerous ways your “copy job” could be different from the original, so you don’t end up with costly surprises in the end.

Check back soon for the final installment in this three-part series focused on the temptation to postpone as much engineering as possible until a financial commitment is made to move forward with a project.  If the first two posts didn’t convince you how important early engineering and project scope definition are, the next post will offer industry data on project failures related to this common mistake.

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