How system integrators, plant owners should collaborate on an automation project

When a plant owner and an automation system integrator are planning an automation project, both sides have to agree on the direction for the project to ensure success as well as understand and respect each other’s priorities and expectations to develop a fruitful, long-term relationship.


Figure 1: When considering a plant upgrade or new project, the integrator and customer must come to terms on which technologies will fulfill the overall objectives best. Courtesy: Maverick TechnologiesHere are two pitches for the same control system integration project:

This new process unit will be a technological showcase: no control room-everything will work from hand-held human-machine interfaces (HMIs); software in the cloud and maximum connectivity via the web. Wireless sensor networks will be everywhere.

Or perhaps something different:

This unit must be reliable, so only tried-and-true technologies will be used-basic analog field devices, all hard-wired; standard PC-based HMIs like the older systems at this site. We know what works, and we will stick with it.

Obviously those two approaches represent extremes of the technology spectrum. The question is, who is making the suggestion in each case? Is it the plant owner who is always conservative while the automation system integrator wants to push the envelope? Or vice versa? The answer can go either way, but in most cases the situation lands somewhere in the middle. There might be some separation on the spectrum, but it's not on opposite ends.

Separation, to any extent, has to be worked out, and the technology gap has to be closed. Sometimes it's an action requiring patience and compromise on both sides, but when done well, it will improve an automation project. 

Isn't the customer always right?

Some project discussions begin with the owner taking a strong position and telling the integrator: "I am the customer, and it's your job to do the project the way I want. Here is the scope, fill it as described, and charge appropriately."

This approach works for projects where the scope is tightly defined, and there are few options for forming an alternative solution. Many automation projects, however, become more complex for a variety of reasons. Entering into a more open discussion goes a long way toward a successful conclusion.

The table lists reasons for involving an integrator in the technology selection and implementation process, and these points are discussed in detail below. 

Choosing the DCS

The number of process plants launching major control system upgrades, including full distributed control system (DCS) replacements, is increasing. Many companies trying to run plants using 30-year-old systems find the risks and costs of nursing such old platforms intolerable. Problems caused by breakdowns and replacement part shortages interrupt production, and vulnerabilities to outside cyber attackers pose major threats.

When a DCS must be replaced, the first hurdle is supplier selection. For some companies, the choice is simple: for reasons of history, supplier relationships, corporate engineering policy, or whatever, there is only one choice. The DCS will come from Supplier X. If this is the case, any system integrator working on the project will have to live with this decision or not accept the project.

For the owner, stating the selection at the outset might thin out the number of integrators bidding on the project. An integrator not familiar with Supplier X has to make a choice: Bow out or take the project believing it can train internal personnel quickly or hire appropriate talent. In most cases, the integrator will not be able to pass those extra costs to the client and must look at it as an investment. Hopefully, another project will come along where those new skills can be used again.

In a situation like this, a large integrator with extensive experience across a range of suppliers and platforms has a distinct advantage. It's simply a matter of assigning the right people to the project.

If supplier selection is open to discussion, an integrator can play a critical role. The process begins with the plant owner's engineers examining operational needs: Here is what the system must be able to do as a minimum, and here is what we would like it to do in addition to improve process control.

The integrator's project team looks at these requirements, and internal platform experts representing each DCS supplier draw on knowledge and experience to make a case for why a particular system best meets the owner's requirements. When a consensus is reached, the best one or two possibilities are presented to the owner by the integrator with a clear explanation as to why specific recommendations are being made. Often the integrator's cumulative internal experience plays a major role in the process. Memories of where a given platform worked well or poorly in particular applications are very important and guide the selection as a result.

Having this unbiased experience is paramount for such a decision. The internal engineers at a given facility don't have the time to research products along these lines and in necessary detail. If they have only the sales pitches from DCS suppliers to go on, their view might not be entirely accurate. Because the integrator often has hands-on experience with the platform in a variety of applications, it is easier for the integrator to achieve a higher level of objectivity than the owner can alone.

If the integrator feels the customer's selection is not the best for the situation, the internal expert for the specific platform will explain the reason for the misgivings. The integrator will point out where gaps exist between functionality needs and the system's capabilities. If the owner accepts the evaluation, but sticks to the original selection, the next step is to figure out how to overcome the deficiencies. The integrator's role in this process is critical.

In some cases, the integrator's project leader may have to sit down with the DCS supplier's representative and be very clear as to where problems lie, allowing the company an opportunity to offer a solution. If the DCS supplier sees the plant owner as a critical customer, it may be glad to have the opportunity to solve the problem and further cement the relationship. The alternative may be for the integrator to bridge the gap with its own fix, either independently or in concert with the DCS supplier. 

Learn more about challenging DCS situations and what to do when opinions clash.

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