Choose the right system integrator: Criteria list

Break down the decisions crucial to selecting the right system integrator for your project. Like selecting a vehicle, decide which criteria matter the most and which are “nice to have” extras. Create a list of choices, narrow the list by considering the capabilities, factor in the price and location, and then take some test drives. See checklists.

By Kevin Montgomery June 1, 2012

Choosing the right system integrator may seem like a daunting and nebulous task. You may be asking yourself, “How do I choose?” or “What criteria are most important?” Demystifying the process with the following criteria can help with selecting the right system integrator for your next project. 

Consider how someone selects a new vehicle. Once you get past the enticing commercials and the flashy pamphlets, you have to make some decisions. Because there are so many choices, you begin to put together a mental checklist before you even test drive a vehicle. Are you going to buy a sedan, a truck, an SUV, or a minivan? What capabilities do you need? Are you going to buy a new car or a used car? Are you going to buy from a local dealer, or do you want a specialty car that a local dealer doesn’t sell? Selecting a system integrator involves many of the same decision-making skills. A combination of necessary capabilities and personal (or company) preferences will help guide you to a final solution.

The following decisions are crucial to the process of selecting the right system integrator. The decision-making process will be compared to the process of selecting a vehicle. You must decide which criteria matter the most and which ones are “nice to have” extras. 

Selection criteria list

To purchase a vehicle, you begin with a list of potential makes and models. Unlike when purchasing a car, you can’t look in a dealer’s lot and find an engineering firm that “catches your eye.” So how do you find potential candidates for the upcoming project? Actually, there are a number of methods.

Begin the list of possible candidates by asking professional associates. Everyone has friends and acquaintances; leverage those connections. Call up some co-workers at the company you worked with five years ago. See who they are using for system integration. Or, use your LinkedIn connections and begin talking to people. 

Call the local automation and instrumentation vendors and ask for recommendations. These vendors work with many integrators and could help to point you to the best options. Also, don’t forget to ask clients. Find out which SI firms they have used for their projects. Don’t be shy about asking their opinions of the SI firms on your candidate list. 


Six-step checklist helps with selecting a system integrator (SI)

1. Make a list: Leverage your connections to make a list of possible candidates. Possible resources include co-workers, vendors, LinkedIn, trade shows, Internet, etc. [and]

2. Define objectives and examine capabilities. Document what you have to accomplish, and the goals you need to achieve. Ensure you have a clear purpose in mind and that you can clearly articulate the objectives for your project. Compare the capabilities of the possible SIs you listed with the goals and objectives you listed. After narrowing your list, ask for references and project examples. Verify that the possible SIs have the capacity in-house to complete your project in a timely manner. Consider the full engineering services that our project requires. Determine if it is a benefit to your company if the SI also has the capabilities to provide an integrated approach to the project execution. Verify that the project managers are trained and have the necessary experience to execute your project. 

3. Ask for a proposal and compare price. If you are reviewing fixed-price bids, make sure that you are comparing proposals of the same scope. Be sure to consider travel expenses. Ask for rate sheets, and try to negotiate a better rate.

4. Determine local support needs. Determine if a local engineer can provide the support your project requires, or if you need a specialty consultant that specializes in your needs.

5.  Take a "test drive." Set up a face-to-face meeting, and a site visit, and ask about the SI’s capabilities, as well as its shortcomings. Determine if the SI has the appropriate space to execute your project. 

6. Make a decision: Choose the SI that you feel will help make your company successful.  This needs to be an engineering company that you feel you can work with and trust.

Courtesy: Process Plus: Kevin Montgomery, senior control system engineer


Primary capabilities 

When purchasing a vehicle, there is a purpose in mind. Why you are going to buy the vehicle? You have to accomplish something, and the vehicle is going to help you achieve your goal. So, when you investigate System Integrators (SIs), you must first be clear about the intended objectives. What kind of project(s) will be executed? Which control systems will be involved? You can begin with narrowing the choices based upon the necessary capabilities of the SI. 

Some SIs have extensive experience with packaging equipment and programmable logic controllers (PLC), but not with distributed control systems (DCS). Others will have batch control experience, but not machine control expertise. Yet again, others will have experience in all of these areas. You probably don’t want an SI firm that specializes in automotive production lines designing your ethanol plant process control system.

Have the potential candidates discuss experiences and capabilities. Every SI firm has one or more areas with special expertise. Your goal is to match your needs (project objectives) with the skill set that the integrator can deliver. Be sure to ask questions that go beyond the SI firm’s sales presentation. Ask for references and examples of successful projects. If you really want to test the waters, ask them to discuss a project that wasn’t successful and have them explain why.

Ask about the size of the firm. How many engineers and designers do they have? Then consider what you will need for your upcoming project(s). One SI firm may seem like it has the necessary expertise, but it may not have enough horsepower to deliver the project objectives.

If executing a multidiscipline project, you may need a full-service engineering firm that can offer more than automation services. Some companies can provide this integrated approach to project execution. Consider the full engineering capabilities that you need to bring to the table: architectural, structural, process design, piping, electrical, mechanical, instrumentation, as well as automation.

Do you need project management skills to enhance your company’s ability to execute a large project? Some SI firms will offer this capability. Most firms will tout their project managers, but be aware of the difference between an individual that calls himself a project manager and someone who is properly trained and experienced. Make sure that you are dealing with Certified Project Managers (CPM) or Project Management Professionals (PMP). These titles will ensure that the individuals have formal training and a basis for claiming the title.

Price point

When purchasing a vehicle, cost is usually a primary concern. Similarly, this issue is a major concern when selecting an SI. It will be your responsibility to compare “apples to apples” when reviewing bids. There will always be differences in the quotes, so look for them and discuss them with the SI firms. The lowest price may not contain all of the necessary engineering to execute the project successfully—especially if the scope is vague. Be wary of a single bid that is much less than the other firms’. You may have hit gold, or you may have found fool’s gold. If you need special expertise, then you can expect to pay more than if you are using ubiquitous PLCs for a simple installation. It is in your best interest to fully develop the scope of the project and be clear with the intended objectives. This will give the candidates the best opportunity to deliver a complete bid.

You may ask the SIs you are considering for their rate sheets. If you are executing a large project or a series of projects, you may be able to negotiate better rates in return for the promise of more work. 

Also, you may want to consider travel expenses for continued support in the future. This leads into the next major consideration: Local versus out-of-town support.

Local support

Just as your local dealership can provide maintenance and support, a local SI firm can provide quicker response times and minimal travel expenses. You must decide if constant, local support is necessary, or only desirable. Of course, everyone wants to have Porsche and Lamborghini dealers in the neighborhood. But, if your project requires a specialty consultant, you may want to consider an out-of-town firm that specializes in your needs. Be realistic and decide if you need the special expertise or the local Ford dealer. For example, systems with complex multi-variable control schemes or model predictive control will often require the special expertise that your local PLC firm does not offer. 

Test ‘drive’ a system integrator

Most SIs will be happy to visit your facility and explain their particular strengths and past project experiences. Just like test driving a vehicle, you should give the SI an opportunity to showcase its abilities (and shortcomings). This face-to-face time will give you a chance to ask detailed questions about its capabilities, as they pertain to project needs. 

Once a short list of two to four candidates is agreed upon, consider visiting their facilities. These visits give the opportunity to assess what cannot be seen from a sales presentation. Look around at their facilities. Are the workers content? Do they have appropriate space to do their tasks? Try to get a feel for the morale of the workers. A pleasing environment with content workers is indicative of a firm that takes pride in doing a good job for its customers. That’s what you want!

Consider the size of the facilities. Do they have the appropriate space to execute your project? This point may be crucial if you intend to have the control system staged at the SI’s facility for a factory acceptance test before its shipment. 

Of course, the real test will be the initial project that the SI executes for your company. Therefore, starting with a small project and developing a rapport with the firm before you begin a complete factory re-control project is a solid approach.

Purchase point

In the end, what is needed is an SI firm that can deliver the project objectives and provide the necessary support to help make your company successful. Look for an integrator that listens to your needs, communicates well, and provides customized solutions for your business. In short, finding a company that you can work with and that you can trust is the goal.

Remember these simple steps: create a list of choices, narrow the list by considering the capabilities, factor in the price and location, and then take some test drives. 

So how do you choose the right system integrator? It’s kind of like choosing the right vehicle.

– Kevin Montgomery is senior control system engineer with Process Plus. Mark T. Hoske, content manager CFE Media, Control Engineering, Plant Engineering, and Consulting-Specifying Engineer, can be reached at 

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About the Author: Kevin Montgomery is senior control system engineer with Process Plus. He has 23 years of distributed process control experience in a wide variety of industries including specialty chemicals, ethanol, foods, consumer products, pharmaceuticals, nuclear waste processing, coal processing, and paper manufacturing. His experience includes control system design, software development, system documentation, commissioning and start-up support, and team leadership. He has installed and supported systems with multiple control platforms, including Honeywell Distributed Control Systems (Experion, Uniformance, TPS, & TDC 3000), Emerson DeltaV, Siemens PCS 7, Rockwell PLCs, GSE D/3 DCS, and GE iFIX. Montgomery is a graduate of the University of Evansville with a Bachelor of science in electrical engineering, and he is a Xavier University Certified Project Manager (CPM).