Automation engineering services: In-house or hired out?

Need automation engineering services? Value and involve in-house automation engineers, select the right outsourced team, help the hired system integrator understand the business, and play an active role with everyone focused on clearly defined project results.

By Jennifer Palumbo May 16, 2012

We don’t need to tell you that your control systems are one of the most important parts of your plant. What can often come into question for plant managers is how best to implement and maintain those systems. Does it make more sense to have an in-house team of automation engineers, or work with an outside company for automation services? Or maybe you need a combination of both? The right answer to those questions can significantly impact your plant’s bottom line. Below, Optimation system integrators explain when it makes sense to maintain a team of your own, and when to seek assistance.

Benefit from an in-house automation staff

When considering whether or not to hire your own automation engineers, consider the benefits of keeping this capability in-house.

“An in-house staff will be familiar with specific manufacturing operations and company requirements better than an outside firm,” said Jim Cummings, general manager of Optimation’s Philadelphia office.

That familiarity can be a valuable asset to companies with sensitive information, such as trade secrets, new products in development, and special processes.

“An in-house team can be leveraged to keep proprietary information internal to the company,” said Mike Triassi, business development manager at Optimation.

While secrecy may be a factor for some companies, size may be a concern for others.

“Larger companies can keep a diverse in-house staff busy, while smaller companies probably find that the smaller in-house staff will not have all of the capabilities to do a wide range of short-term projects with specific technical needs,” said Greg Gacioch, regional sales manager for Optimation’s Minnesota office.

For these larger companies with an ongoing need for automation support, maintaining an internal staff may be less expensive; however, as Triassi said, “When there isn’t a steady need to execute an engineering project, it may be more expensive for the company to maintain an in-house staff.”

Considering the big picture for workload is important, adds Dan Purvis, general manager of Optimation’s southwest offices, including Houston, Dallas, and Denver.

“I would recommend a small group of people that really know their way around it all,” said Purvis. “But your automation needs will ebb and flow. You may hire up for a major implementation project, but then after that’s complete, then what?”

While maintaining an in-house staff can save you time and money in many ways, there can be an unseen cost in skills stagnation. “Often, internal staff cannot keep up with the latest technologies as easily as an outside firm, since they are tasked with maintaining their existing systems. Outside firms are primarily upgrading systems or installing new systems,” Cummings points out.

Considering your team’s skill set when faced with a system upgrade will be a factor in deciding whether or not to hire out.

To outsource or not

When does it make sense to outsource automation services, even if you already have an in-house team?

“Schedule and project complexity are the two biggest reasons to hire out,” said Purvis.

“My clients seem to be considering outside help for two particular reasons: when they need expertise that is not currently available with existing staff and when the existing staff is too busy with other projects when the need arises,” said Gacioch.

And when the new project needs outpace the capacity of internal resources, the choice is to hire more staff, delay projects, or contract services.

Use the expertise of an outside firm

Even if your plant has an excellent in-house automation team, in tune to the needs and processes of the company, you run the risk of skills stagnation and unfamiliarity with the latest technology available in your industry. And when the time comes for a necessary upgrade, this may be beyond the capabilities of your team.

Triassi added, “If the technology being deployed is new to the company, it may be safer and less expensive to use an outside firm with the skills. Many automation service providers are experts in their field or have executed a greater number of projects, where an internal staff may have a few capital projects farther apart from each other.”

But this doesn’t mean that your automation staff can’t be a part of the work. For upgrades beyond your team’s capabilities, you may want to consider bringing an outside firm for the initial architecture and then provide ongoing coaching to round out your existing team, suggested Purvis.

Benefit from best practices

While a benefit to having an in-house automation staff is that the team is comfortable with your systems, there can also be a disadvantage: They can get too comfortable. Purvis has seen this happen many times while working at client sites.

“A company needs to make updates to the system, and the in-house guy may have a tendency to wing it and start coding,” said Purvis. “The number-one benefit you get with disciplined outsourced teams is that they can have better requirements definition and documentation. In-house staff can get away with shortcuts; outsourced teams tend to have better processes which cost less in the long run, but more up front,” he adds. “Outsourced teams need documentation, which means you have a drawing of what you’ve done. Raw documentation and all code and no notes make it pretty impossible to make updates properly and maintain your system.” 

Therefore, the outsourced team selection process should include a review of project methodologies and evidence of adherence to best practices, such as those advocated by the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). They will often leverage proven efficiency techniques, such as requirements traceability and risk mitigation documentation, conferencing capabilities for design and system reviews, and remote webcam witnessing of factory acceptance tests. 

Take the right approach to outsourcing

When you do decide to work with an outside firm to provide automation services, don’t expect to be hands-off. The success of the project depends as much on the work and involvement that you and your internal team put forward as it does the efforts of the outsourced team.

“Assign a client representative to the project,” said Cummings. “This representative should participate in project meetings, review documentation, and participate in testing in a serious and timely fashion.” 

But as with maintaining your own automation team, hiring out can have its drawbacks as well. Challenges can arise, such as distrust and feelings of competition among members of your team and the hired firm. Purvis suggested the role that management and a solid communication plan can play.

“Management needs to have a strong message of what’s going on with the project, and how the external team fits in. Give regular updates and keep all appropriate members of your team involved.”

The best project teams have roles and responsibilities well defined and act as one integrated team without finger pointing. Often an outside firm that has put the right resources on a job becomes a preferred supplier for the client. The initial learning curve is over, and the team knows each other and can then repeat project successes in future work.

Often your project success and the synergy of your team and the outsourced team fall upon front-end planning and project management.

“Work harder up front,” said Purvis. “In a typical engineering project, the code is cut, the system is built, and then the clients realize they need certain features that aren’t a part of the system. If you reverse the sense of urgency from when a project ends to the beginning, you can properly define scope and avoid this in the end. Solid project management starts with good scope definition.”

Mike Triassi also noted that your work begins even before the project starts.

“Developing a proper scope, qualifying a supplier, and reviewing the work needs during and after development need to be factored into the process of getting support,” Triassi said. “It is important to determine the nature of the terms of the contract. Will it be time and material with a lot of oversight from the in-house staff, or will it be turnkey with a well-defined project scope?”

Remember that an important part of scope definition is risk assessment and determining how best to manage those risks. But it’s not always top of mind during scope definition.

“A lot of customers don’t want to hear risks and how to deal with them before the project starts. Proper risk management will cost more up front, but in the long run can save you a lot of money,” Purvis said.

In the end, Cummings, Gacioch, Purvis, and Triassi concede that even the best outsourced team with the greatest skills is still going to have a learning curve when it comes to understanding your business, over and above the in-house staff.  The key to a successful project with an outside firm is to play an active role every step of the way, with all team members focused on clearly defined project results.

Jennifer Palumbo is marketing communications specialist, Optimation Technology Inc. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Jennifer Palumbo is director of marketing at Optimation Technology Inc.