Agile Pilot Testing – Agile Prototyping

Written by:

Sygifredo Cobos, Ph.D., P. Eng.

Taking a new concept to full product or operations is not a straightforward process to navigate, and it does not end always in success, which on these cases results on capital and time losses. It all depends on the approach being taken and what is being defined as success.

Pilot projects need to be carefully planned as a necessary mean to a bigger end. We want to avoid pilot projects failing, and want to see them as mean towards evaluating scalability and commerciality of new product, equipment, technology, or process.

This is why agile design, development and project execution has gained more and more popularity in the software arena in the last 20 years, which involve “adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continual improvement, and it encourages flexible responses to change”. [1]

The reality is that the principles of agile development are not only important to software development, but are also critical to the design, development, and implementation of new technologies in other fields such as engineering or where physical assets are involved. What is more interesting is that with the acceleration of converging technologies, the boundaries of agile development in both software and physical assets have become more intertwined.

The approach to the current article will be in fact agile. We want to transfer our learnings in pilot testing, while keeping a mind open to feedback, continuous learning and expansion. The field is broad, and our target is to share our expertise at the same time we learn more.

Having worked on all the stages that take to bring an idea to construction and full field implementation, at Enovist we want to make this expertise available to the industry, to facilitate the development and adoption of more sustainable solutions to rebuild a better future, aka, more energy-efficiency technologies, sustainable developments, cleantech implementations.

When an energy operator approached Enovist to design a new facility process and business model, we used the agile approach to achieve successful field pilot testing. Starting from what it could be “user stories” we used interviews, short written stories, and drawings to visualize what would the target process would potentially look like. It seems straightforward, but the reality is at the initial stage of a project involving a new idea, it is not clear what the final product or process will be and what happens ahead. We have seen this across multiple projects and have chosen this one as a case of study, as it involved in more detail all the stages of product and process development until pilot testing.

This project involved running proof of concept testing at small scales, bench scale testing, upscale engineering for field pilot testing, construction and process design, direct coordination with construction and operator for plant construction, commissioning of facilities and operating procedures, safety, and HAZOP reviews, and finally running and evaluation the performance of pilot tests. The field pilot tests were a total success, and this is the type of delivery we aim for.

Our first stage involved a technical and business prefeasibility study, where fundamental technical concepts were reviewed and business parameters were evaluated to check the practicability of moving forward.

Then a feasibility study was conducted. So far it seems a straightforward process, but this feasibility study involved small batch scale physical tests of the concept being tested, when technical viability was further validated, and additional data was collected to evaluate the business sense in terms of more likely energy and materials consumption at larger scales.

This was a 3-month study with a way under $100k budget that, in the case of a no-go decision, had saved larger capital and time investments. Successfully, the project evolved to the next phase as the technical and business feasibility were further validated. But with the agile approach, there were also additional learnings and considerations. At this stage the operator was envisioning the process in a continuous mode, rather than the batch type process used during the initial evaluations. Moving from batch to continuous mode would now involve larger volumes of materials to be handled during the same time frames, while the equipment, logistics would also need to be adapted to the new process mode.

Now additional considerations need to be taken when the customer or operator is already envisioning a process at pilot scale. One of this consideration was ensuring that new equipment and facilities would be able to handle the volumes required, while optimizing energy efficiency of the process, and reducing risks, ensuring high quality HSE standards. Procurement considerations also come into the table specially when it comes to bringing new equipment and facilities. Are the vendors equipped to safely and reliable provide the equipment required for subsequent larger scales of the process? In fact, one provider that seem to be reliable to provide equipment for batch operations, had to be moved down the list as it could not verify its reliability for continuous mode processes on time. This was more of an agile call than in other cases would have not been made and would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, delays and eventually the failure of the whole project overall. Decisions like this are challenging to take, especially if involve a provider that was previously seen as reliable, or more bringing change to the project by allowing a new provider into the whole project. Interviews, and testing the potential new equipment at small scale for continuous mode can be part of the move.

Agile Prototype Development, Testing, further Considerations and Scalability

Agile Prototype development, building and testing is more than an end and it becomes an iterative process, where we learn as much about the prototype as to what the final product/process and solution might be. A prototype product/process that can be iteratively tested, and it leads to further questions about logistics and field operations considerations that will need to be brought into the picture. The idea is to create a customer/client development and experience that is frictionless and practical, economical, sustainable, scalable. Sounds easier said than done. The team needs to collect the most valuable data from the tests while keeping the investment small and flexible, and continuously iterate with how the new process would integrate into existing operations.

Agile Pilot Testing – Usability

When it comes to software development, we have worked with software teams releasing working software for continued testing and scalability. This phase may be most familiar to developers who are used to agile work, and in some cases the term “agile” is not even used. There will be a lot of iteration to connect the software to the front end. During this phase, the whole team needs to evolve the front end so that it feels complete and robust, valuable features are integrated, and more importantly, frictionless. The customers should be able to “post” questions in their minds, and have their questions answered in a smooth manner with an auto generated table, or graph that allows to maximize the value of data, or in other words, to lead to actionable insights.

Going back to our project case, part of this agile development was executed with progressive and iterative testing stages, a previously described.

The pilot testing of physical facility then, will involve the integration of modules and components where the most critical components have been tested at smaller scales and at a fraction of the cost of the whole facility. We sometimes call this as efficiently de-risking a process, equipment, or technology. The most important component of the process is the prototype, which has been previously evaluated to be integrated with existing operations.

In other projects, we have been involved mainly in the final stages leading to pilot implementation and testing, where we must merge the boundaries between physical assets (equipment, facilities) and digital technologies, such as cloud infrastructures (a data hub that collects huge amounts of data and sends it through the cloud) to final user interfaces. These developments are fascinating as, by the end of the day, it all needs to lead to the quality, usability, safety, and value of data. All that equipment, facilities, proof of concept testing would mean nothing if the customer can not rely on the data. Can they access it through a smooth interface? Can they get a quick answer to their most important questions? Will it lead to optimizing operations or reducing costs, what is the ultimate value of the implementation ?.

We do not intend to come with a formula for success, though we have learned the following parameters as key to continuous success pilot after pilot: a) strong fundamentals; what are the underlying fundamentals of the main component of the process or product have been these proven, b) technical and business feasibility, c) Strong focus on the final product, not on sales, c) adaptability and flexibility, not only of the product/technology, but of the team behind it !.

So, as we said, this will be an agile article, to be improved and expanded as we continue to learn!.