How Communications Help Integration Projects Succeed

As much as 80% of project problems are due to a lack of proper communications between the client and the integrator, according to the results of a recent survey in which the 1800+ system integrators listed in Control Engineering's Automation Integrator Guide were asked to share their top tips for ensuring the success of an automation project. See graph. Link to more help.


8 tips for project success and additional help with engineering communications

As much as 80% of project problems are due to a lack of proper communications between the client and the integrator, according to the results of a recent survey in which the 1800+ system integrators listed in Control Engineering 's Automation Integrator Guide were asked to share their top tips for ensuring the success of an automation project.

These facts from the field bear this point out: When system integrators help with a project, they should discuss every detail of the project with every stakeholder; disseminate all decisions to everyone responsible for designing, implementing or using the system; and make sure everyone understands not only what needs to be done, but why and how.

Above all else, respondents to the survey advised their clients to communicate effectively. "If you're not communicating, you're guessing," says Bob Zeigenfuse, CEO of Avanceon, a member of Control Engineering 's System Integrator Hall of Fame. "You notice where you failed to communicate when it's time to start up the project."

Start communicating early

But good communication is important even before the first screw is turned. "Many projects start with communications through a salesperson who tries to pass on information based on his/her understanding of a project, without understanding the complete need or knowing the questions to ask," says Jeffrey Thompson, applications specialist at Electrodynamic Automated Solutions.

Chart shows the relative cost of fixing a defect in software at various stages of a project, which equates to the cost of changing your mind as a project progresses.

Chart shows the relative cost of fixing a defect in software at various stages of a project, which equates to the cost of changing your mind as a project progresses.

Thompson adds that the client needs to give a prospective integrator full access to all plant personnel directly involved with the proposed project. "This provides a path for accurate collection of needed information, and helps develop the clearest possible definition for the project."

Laurens Van Pagee, director of branch operations at Hall of Fame integrator JMP Engineering, agrees. "The earlier you can engage an integrator in your buying cycle, the better. The more they understand the business impact of the project, the better aligned the solution will be with your stakeholders' expectations. Define the stakeholders on both teams and determine who needs what information when so that everyone will be well informed throughout the course of the project."

On the other hand, Marvin Coker, senior project engineer at Hall of Fame integrator Bachelor Controls, notes that sometimes it's hard to see the forest through the trees. "Oftentimes a client will get so caught up in the many other details of a project (construction planning, furnishings, equipment, etc.) that they are not sufficiently prepared to discuss the details of the process." He adds that clients who don't fully explain their objectives cannot expect an integrator to "make magic on the back end of the project."

Read and understand documents

But simply committing all of the project's details to paper isn't enough to guarantee that the integrator and the client have fully communicated with one another, says Scott Alter, vice president of marketing and sales at Primary Systems. He advises end users to actually read all of the documents that their integrators give them. "Read the specification like the project is new to you and be sure you understand everything that the system will do. If you don't, then clarify it with the integrator."

Communications should not be limited to the managers responsible for the project. "Early dialog between the operations group and the automation contractor is critical to ensuring that the operations group's needs and requirements are well documented and fully aligned with the business objectives," says Matt Willmott, senior marketing manager of integrated-MAC for Hall of Fame integrator Honeywell Process Solutions.

David J. Blaida, director of sales and marketing at Hall of Fame integrator Matrix Technologies, agrees. "Get the operations people on the team early. These people will have the responsibility to run the system day to day and have excellent input on what makes their jobs easier or more convenient. If you involve them early enough, they will take a share of ownership in the system design and will be much more likely to be its champions in the end, rather than its opponents."

Blaida adds that, one way or another, "there must be a project champion on the customer end who attends all meetings, answers information requests in a timely fashion and serves as the project liaison on the customer side. Focused involvement from the customer side helps to ensure that project details are completely addressed."

Matt Petras, control applications engineer at ControlSoft, agrees but points out that the client needs "someone in-house who is willing to take ownership. Just assigning ownership is not enough."

It's also important for the integrator to have its own internal communications in order. When choosing an integrator, "look for methods of internal communications like weekly production meetings to manage action lists," advises David Voves, vice president and general manager of Rimrock Automation.

Continue communicating

Many of the survey's respondents cited the importance of maintaining effective communications throughout the entire course of the project. Steve Blakely, director of sales and marketing at Hall of Fame integrator Brock Solutions, suggests that end users should have project meetings with their integrators at least once a month. "Obtain commitments, assign dates and a person responsible for each, and follow up," he says.

Paul Prew, owner of LoKey Data Acquisition and Control, adds that ongoing communications are especially helpful as the project evolves. He advises end users to "modify system requirements and designs as capabilities, interactions and implications emerge, since these things are rarely known or anticipated at the beginning."

And of course, be sure to communicate all such changes to the integrator, says Hans van Wijk, business developer at Actemium Consultants and Engineers. "In every project you will have slight changes and both parties must have agreement on how to deal with them."

Communications shouldn't end once the newly integrated automation system is operational. "Emphasize your training requirements and make certain that these are included in the scope of work and are fully understood by the integrator," advises Stuart Cooper, vice president of sales at robotic system integrator Flexicell. "Define the deliverables—manuals, etc.—and make certain they meet the requirements as specified."

Russell White, president of Automation Technologies, takes an even longer view of communicating with clients. "Developing an ongoing relationship allows the integrator's team to become familiar with the client and their systems. When a new project comes along, the integrator will understand better what needs to be done and how to do it."

ONLINE extra


System integrators: 7 tips for project success, plus one more, often forgotten


Job skills: 5 ways to improve engineering communications



Author Information

Vance VanDoren, Ph.D., P.E., consulting editor for Control Engineering, also edits the Automation Integrator Guide at

8 tips for project success

Communicate early and often.

Define the stakeholders.

Read all documentation.

Extend communications to all stakeholders, creating champions rather than opponents.

Ensure someone in-house "owns" the project.

Use communication tools.

Communicate changes as you go.

Continue communications beyond startup.

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