Custom automation vs. commercial-off-the-shelf, or both?


Fear can lead to poor decisions

These fallacies can drive a customer to make poor business decisions based on the fear of “custom” alone and allows customers to be lured into the promises made by COTS products. COTS-based projects fail for two primary reasons. First, the customer either does not understand the COTS product limitations or is willing to accept these limitations to adhere to the “common everything” vision. Customers often see success on their initial, relatively small deployment, but find it challenging to extend the system to other functional areas or facilities that have different needs.

A system integrator should assess the organization’s needs and provide the best solution based on those requirements, not based on what products they sell.


Second, the customer does not adequately plan for the maintenance and support required for the COTS product. Again, this issue is not readily visible on the first deployment. However, as the system grows and customized portions of the COTS product require modification and configuration management, customers begin to see issues with version control and support.

Leverage COTS and custom

The most successful system integration projects use both COTS and custom approaches to best fit the customer’s immediate needs and future requirements. For successful system integration, customers and their consultants must:

  • Understand COTS and custom as viable and necessary options. Do not limit system integration projects to COTS without understanding the organization’s immediate and future needs. Be sure to recognize how any COTS deployment will be customized for these needs and the support requirements associated with all facets of the product. If the needs are unique, as most are, evaluate the merits of a custom solution.
  • Decide what should be common and, conversely, what should be customizable. Every system should have a set of features that everyone gets and a set of expectations that every deployment should adhere to. Define these up front based on business requirements. Then, decide what features can be different between functional areas and facilities. Allow the standard features to support “custom” features that are needed in different areas.
  • Find a technical advocate. When looking for a system integrator to assist, deploy, and program the solution, be sure to find a technical advocate and not a product vendor. A system integrator should assess the organization’s needs and provide the best solution based on those requirements, not based on what products they sell.

Corey A. Stefanczak is a senior system engineer at SAIC, responsible for the design, development, and integration of real-time information systems. Courtesy: SAICBy seeing “custom” as a viable option instead of a feared word, customers can make better system integration decisions. Understanding custom as a tool and necessary part of a project, COTS or otherwise, a customer can weigh the benefits of a COTS and custom solution, rather than restricting their view to a COTS or custom solution.

- Corey A. Stefanczak is senior system architect at Leidos Engineering. His primary focus is helping clients unify automation infrastructure and information systems within large, distributed environments. Stefanczak uses 16 years of integration experience to help clients succeed by finding the right balance between COTS components and custom development. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager CFE Media, Control Engineering, Plant Engineering, and Consulting-Specifying Engineer,


Key concepts

  • Customization may be dismissed out of hand, when it can be the best solution.
  • Just because it is commercial off the shelf (COTS) doesn’t mean it can be used without custom configuration.
  • Do not limit system integration projects to COTS without understanding the organization’s immediate and future needs. 

Consider this

  • If some customization is required to get 20% more output over the lifecycle of an automation system, wouldn’t that be worth the extra investment?

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