while building an experimental fusion device, German scientists discovered the value of project management
BY S.A. SWANSON
Science was the easy part for the physicists and engineers who built the world's largest experimental nuclear fusion reactor.
The €1 billion program spanning 20 years at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Greifswald, Germany achieved its ultimate goal in February. That's when the massive doughnut-shaped Wendelstein 7-X (W7-X) experimental reactor generated a brief but scorching ribbon of hydrogen plasma—the same energy produced by the sun and stars. The reactor reached 80 million degrees Celsius (144 million degrees Fahrenheit) during the quarter-second discharge, giving researchers justification to continue tests in the years ahead until W7-X discharges last 30 minutes.
Project coordinators kept the megaproject on schedule and within budget as they took the first step in a global race to develop nuclear fusion power plants that—unlike conventional nuclear plants—produce little radioactive waste. With more than 200 projects necessary to plan and assemble the W7-X, the involved scientists couldn't afford to take any chances. So they also learned to embrace the value of project management. The project coordination team introduced project leaders and team members to strict processes for managing resources and schedules and mitigating risk, says Axel Lorenz, PhD, head of the W7-X project coordination division, Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, Greifswald, Germany.
“A lot of people here are well-qualified technically, but they didn't have a feeling for how to estimate a work process and take on contingencies in certain steps for manufacturing, assembly and commissioning,” Dr. Lorenz says. “A number of colleagues didn't have much interest in project management, so we tried to help them understand the challenges ahead and open their eyes.”
The W7-X was built from the inside out: first, the plasma containment vessel, then the coils threaded onto the vessel, followed by the outer shell to complete the cryostat, and finally the plasma viewing ports—and those were just the major components. In all, material estimates and orders had to be collected from about 50 project leaders across eight divisions. To avoid 50 cumbersome dialogues, Dr. Lorenz's team created a materials manager function in each division that helped all teams create forecasts for materials procurement, Dr. Lorenz says. This tool came in handy often.
For instance, the reactor's plasma vessels required specialized low-cobalt steel so the vessels wouldn't magnetize and become radioactive when the reactor fires up. Teams had to be taught to place steel orders before design was completed—often a year in advance—to ensure availability and on-time arrival. Without the aggressive procurement planning, the average delay for each project would have been six months, Dr. Lorenz estimates.
“A number of colleagues didn't have much interest in project management, so we tried to help them understand the challenges ahead and open their eyes.”
—Axel Lorenz, PhD, Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, Greifswald, Germany
“One of the biggest roles of project coordination, I would say, is to try to have project leaders’ heads above the short term and always looking to the long term. What's coming their way in one or two years?”
By improving resource management processes, the teams also learned to optimize schedules and realized how a delay on one task had the potential to create a domino effect that would wreck the overall timeline, Dr. Lorenz says.
1996: Wendelstein 7-X experimental nuclear reactor program launches.
1998: Preparation for production of superconducting coils begins.
2003: The first superconducting coil arrives.
2005: The plasma vessel is assembled.
2009: Cryogenic tests for superconducting coils are successfully completed.
2010: First section of the water-cooling system is completed.
2013: The magnet system is completed.
2014: Welding completed on outer vessel and all reactor construction completed by end of the year.
December 2015: Helium plasma is produced during first test of reactor.
February 2016: Primary goal is achieved when a stream of hydrogen plasma is produced.
March 2016: First operations phase successfully completed. The phase included more than 900 experiments.
For example, when technicians install the intricate X-ray camera system inside the plasma vessel for the second phase of operation, everything will have to be perfectly aligned. The project leader met with technical specialists such as welders and electricians, and then summarized the findings in weekly team meetings. The knowledge gained from those meetings convinced the project leaders to order trial welding on a mock-up vessel section to flag any surprises that would impact the timeline or quality of the work. The trial lasted about two weeks but was scheduled early enough to not impact the overall timeline.
“We must avoid the ‘learning by doing’ effect when standing in the vessel in cramped conditions,” he says. “The approach of spending extra time to practice is one we follow quite strictly on all similar tasks.”
“Sometimes people argued about the formal paperwork, but in the end, it required everyone to think very carefully about the tasks they had to do.”
—Hans-Stephan Bosch, PhD, Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, Greifswald, Germany
Hans-Stephan Bosch, PhD, director of Wendelstein 7-X operations, Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics
Location: Greifswald, Germany
Experience: 29 years
Other notable projects:
1. Tokamak Fusion Test Reactor project, the world's first magnetic fusion device, which was completed in 2002 at Princeton University. Dr. Bosch served as a research physicist.
2. Axially Symmetric Diverter Experiment Upgrade, a nuclear fusion device research project that's still in progress. Dr. Bosch built diagnostics and also served as experiment leader.
Career lesson learned:
“Planning in a project should always handle schedule and finances at the same time and in one tool.”
NEW TOOL, NEW BUY-IN
Over time, the project coordination leaders improved how teams monitored schedules and finances. For instance, early on, project schedules and financial spreadsheets were sent back and forth by email, and one person was assigned to copy and paste the information. The process was inefficient and created the risk of human error, says Dr. Lorenz. So in 2008, the project coordination team created an integrated planning tool that automatically consolidated each project's financial data and project schedule on a common server. It allowed project leaders to access up-to-date information and provided the project coordination team a more accurate overview of W7-X progress.
“It took a lot of effort to convince them to use this tool,” Dr. Lorenz says. Some team members balked at spending extra time to learn the new planning software. “But that had more to do with their general rejection of having to make a plan,” Dr. Lorenz says. “They claimed they could manage everything from the top of their heads.”
Eventually Dr. Lorenz and his colleagues won them over by highlighting benefits, such as the need for fewer meetings on project checks and financial reviews. The team also established an intranet for frequently asked questions and to field questions from users.
“Sometimes people argued about the formal paperwork, but in the end, it required everyone to think very carefully about the tasks they had to do,” says Hans-Stephan Bosch, PhD, director of W7-X operations. “The qualification of each step resulted in excellent quality.”
RISKS AND REWARDS
Close attention to both near-term tasks and longer-term challenges enabled project teams to identify potential risks. As each project gained steam, the project coordination team ramped up interviews with each project leader. The meetings covered issues such as the status of component design, possible assembly risks and how long it would take to build components.
For instance, in 2007 the project coordination team interviewed project leaders to analyze financial risks. “If the answer was, ‘We need another five years,’ then we obviously needed to look at inflation,” Dr. Lorenz says. “If the industrial contract was going to start three years down the line, we needed to check [the project leader's] estimate of €50,000, because inflation was going to increase this estimate.”
A risk register helped identify possible surprises that endangered the overall objective or the schedule for assembling the device, Dr. Bosch says. Risks were divided by category, such as personnel or engineering, and included the potential impact, countermeasures and an estimate of their costs. The process forced the team leaders to brainstorm solutions long before problems surfaced, Dr. Bosch says.
“Some of these risks never evolved into a real problem. For all listed risks, we could implement countermeasures proactively.”
“From what I understand, we grew into a role model in Germany for how a scientific project should be managed.”
Dr. Bosch and Dr. Lorenz also managed contingency budgets, so reserve funds would be on hand whenever necessary. The initial contingency of nearly €18 million was gone by the time reactor construction was completed in December 2014. “We used all of it, but we didn't need more,” Dr. Lorenz says. “So the risk assessment was quite spot-on.”
That was welcome news for W7-X sponsors—state and national governments in Germany and the European Union.
“We were able to explain easily how we planned for each euro and how it was spent. The sponsors, especially the Ministry of Science in Germany, were very glad,” Dr. Lorenz says. “From what I understand, we grew into a role model in Germany for how a scientific project should be managed.” PM
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