Choosing the Right Project Implementation Strategy

As outsourcing increases in popularity, end-users have more choices than ever when implementing a project strategy. Do they use in-house staff, the professional consulting services of the vendor whose products they are using, or a local system integrator to complete the job? Deciding which strategy to implement requires careful analysis of the best scenarios for each.

By Vance J. VanDoren, CONTROL ENGINEERING and Paul Nowicki, Sequencia Corp. August 1, 1999
  • System integrators

  • Business

  • Industrial control

  • Life-cycle analysis

Customer and vendor join forces

As outsourcing increases in popularity, end-users have more choices than ever when implementing a project strategy. Do they use in-house staff, the professional consulting services of the vendor whose products they are using, or a local system integrator to complete the job? Deciding which strategy to implement requires careful analysis of the best scenarios for each. Implementation engineering represents a significant investment-as much as two-thirds of the overall project cost-so it is critical that end users make the proper choice.

Although the actual workflow of a typical project appears simple,
getting to the end result successfully is anything but easy.

Your mission, save the planet

Although the actual workflow of a typical project appears simple (see Project Execution Workflow graph), getting to the result successfully is anything but easy. Project managers must constantly check the status of their limited collection of superpowers (time, money, and resources) to ensure that the project is proceeding as planned. Each of the workflow activities is vital to the overall success of the project, and selecting the right resources for the job is essential. With the options of using in-house engineering, consulting services of the vendor, or a system integrator, a project manager should evaluate each of these forces for their ability to meet the project’s specific needs.

The key benefits of do-it-yourself projects are full control of the project and complete knowledge of the system. These benefits also allow users to identify some of the required infrastructure that must be available to even consider engineering the project in-house. To be successful, the user’s engineering department should:

  • Be adequately staffed to handle the variable resource load requirements of a project;

  • Have the necessary product expertise or ability to get the required training quickly;

  • Have seasoned project management resources; and

  • Have a well-defined methodology for detailed project execution and tracking.

Of the requirements above, the most often overlooked is project execution methodology. Unfortunately, users will often ignore the significance of proper project management on internal projects. Getting the expected return on the automation investment, even when engineered from within, requires timely project execution without overruns. When services are supplied to the user from outside, the methodology and tracking of the project just becomes good business sense on the part of the provider. Internally, members of the project engineering department should consider themselves as essential to the overall investment success as the equipment they are installing. Execution and tracking of the project should be defined up-front so that deviations from the plan can be identified and evaluated before they are undertaken and end up derailing the original objectives.

Users often underestimate the technical expertise needed to implement today’s systems. Training programs from vendors can act as a good start in the right direction, but cannot fully address all possible pitfalls that may lie ahead over the entire project execution. This instills a degree of risk in the project. Users often end up redesigning a partially completed project during their first attempt to implement a new vendor’s product. Wary project managers should include sufficient slack in their project schedules to account for the learning curves of their internal engineering resources.

Another hidden cost of using in-house engineering on an automation project is the burden of long-term support. Unless managed carefully, an in-house engineering staff can be continuously plagued by minor glitches or upgrades of long completed projects. This has a tendency of disrupting a current project as resources that ‘know the system’ are pulled off to correct a problem in a production system. Rigorous documentation can help alleviate this.

Hometown heroes

With downsizing, rightsizing, restructuring, and changes in corporate engineering staffing, system integrators have become a valuable asset to many businesses. One end-user, Eric Klebba, launch manager for Johnson Controls (Mt. Clemens, Mich.) claims that ‘outsourcing of professional services is essential for survival.’ Why? Among other reasons, system integrators have competitive labor rates and usually have good domain experience both in the process and automation areas. Their skills are generally kept more up-to-date than in-house resources just by the fact that they are constantly engineering new projects. This breadth of experience enables the system integrator to fine-tune methods and often offer application solutions for less than the in-house staff.

Jon Amack, operating manager for Sirex-LLC (a system integrator in Beaverton, Ore.) puts it this way: ‘Knowing that there are both right ways and wrong ways of implementing a project and that through experience we can implement projects sometimes in half the time of a first attempt, our clients have reduced both cost and risk by partnering their engineering staff with our capabilities.’ Mr. Klebba agrees. ‘What is needed is that outsourced professional services become a part of the enterprise, working as one unit, to obtain synchronous goals to help compete in this highly competitive market.’

With a local presence, a system integrator’s resources can often be applied where needed and to the degree needed. In some instances, system integrators will take full responsibility for project success and supply all elements of project work flow, while in others, they may just supply needed resource in a specific task. An advantage of the larger system integrators is that they can cover a very diverse group of project needs.

Brian Finkbone, national account manager for GE Instrument Control Service (a system integrator in Pensacola, Fla.) states, ‘The larger integrators typically can produce complete documentation for installation, system interconnection and design drawings, instrument specifications, and system configuration documentation. Some system integrators can deliver a turnkey system by providing complementary services like enclosure design and fabrication, instrument calibration, engineering staffing, system staging, and complete installation. Overall, this reduces risk and relieves responsibility for plant engineers so they can maintain a necessary focus on overall details of completing all the project’s aspects on time and under budget.’

On the other hand, not all system integrators are created equal. Although the Control System Integrator Association ( ) is making significant steps forward to define the aspects of a quality system integrator, some are more skilled in certain areas than others. Dave Reitz, a senior engineer at Clorox Products Manufacturing Co. (Aberdeen, Md.), has employed system integrators for several projects. He notes that ‘project managers need to know that the experience of a system integrator is not guaranteed. He needs to determine up front if his integrator has experience with the type of system he’s putting in and the tools he’s using.’

It is very important that a system integrator has experience with the user’s preferred automation products. Most integrators do try to keep up with the latest developments in the most popular hardware and software, but few can match the product-specific expertise of the vendor’s own application engineers. In some cases, a system integrator may even be motivated toward a custom solution because it may seem easier to implement than learning a new product. This can ultimately cause maintenance and upgrade issues.

Most users limit these risks by selecting integrators from their vendors’ preferred implementers lists, or by working with system integrators that consistently perform quality work, within budget and on schedule (a truly heroic act).

Superman and Wonder Woman

The main benefit of using a vendor’s professional services is the reduction of project risk. Vendors know their automation products better than anyone else, and will probably not make the costly mistakes that someone unfamiliar with their products might. Even with today’s ‘open systems,’ automation is awash with details and idiosyncrasies. Having both direct contacts with their product’s architects and the background of many projects with those products, the vendor’s application engineers know better than anyone how to apply and implement their products.

On the other hand, unlike the real Superman and Wonder Woman, these heroes are not free. Vendors typically charge a premium for services, though the savings in implementation execution can compensate for the higher billing rate. Project managers that have projects with critical delivery requirements and/or complex product relationships should carefully consider this trade-off.

Another advantage of selecting a vendor’s services is the ability to supply full life-cycle support. Vendors generally offer support contracts for their products and will often extend those to the application engineering. This provides a ‘one-stop’ answer to any future question in the life of the automation project.

This too can be a mixed blessing. Individual vendors generally support their own products so are naturally inclined to offer a single-brand solution. This can lead to less-than-objective product choices, and in the worst case, solutions that are force-fit into the project.

The optimal project team involves in-house staff, the vendor’s professional services, and a system integrator.

The invincible alliance

A fourth, and possibly optimum option is to create a project team that involves all the heroes- in-house staff, the vendor’s professional services, and a system integrator (see An Implementation Alliance graph). The objective in this approach is to leverage the benefits of each group to create a project that is more successful than any single force can offer. The in-house engineers’ inherent understanding of the process can be combined with the application expertise of the system integrator and the product knowledge of the vendor. Each party can focus its abilities on issues that may be difficult for its counterparts to handle effectively. If managed properly, this can significantly increase chances for success. ‘This is exactly what we do with our projects,’ says Mr. Reitz. ‘We work with the integrator at every step so we can make future changes ourselves. After all, the plant has to take ownership at some point.’ There’s also an economic benefit for the end-user to stay involved with the project from start to finish.

‘System integrators are real efficient at designing the automation system and installing it. But when it comes time to start up the project, we let the integrator go home. We handle the minor issues ourselves. It’s just too expensive to keep an integrator sitting around to handle minor glitches,’ Mr. Reitz adds. On the other hand, some users feel that the integrator’s presence is good insurance for an on-schedule startup.

This team is especially powerful when the full life-cycle of the automation project is considered. By developing a good working relationship between in-house engineering and outside resources, there can be quick and effective response when future needs arise. In many cases, having a local system integrator involved in a project provides an excellent resource for ongoing application support and for future system improvements.

Implementations in which the vendor’s services have been involved can also lead to future product improvements.

For success in a combined implementation approach, the scope of work must be clearly defined for each party, and the communication channels must be clear so that minor adjustments made by one party do not cause unexpected work for another.

In a well-defined alliance, there should be no question who is accountable for delivering each aspect of the overall project and who must answer to an ‘unforeseen’ challenge.

Whichever method the user selects for implementation, the key to success is careful planning. Consider it your can of spinach. . A well-defined scope and clear responsibilities ensure that your super-heroes know what it means to save your ‘planet.’ Understand the benefits and trade-offs in the implementation method selected and monitor progress against the plan.

Author Information
Vance VanDoren is president of VanDoren Industries in West Lafayette, Ind., and a consulting editor for Control Engineering.
Paul Nowicki is the director of Sequencia Corp’s OpenBatch Solution Provider Program

Customer and vendor join forces

As a case in point, Sequencia Corp. (Phoenix, Ariz.) recently completed a project where the customer, Sirex, and Sequencia provided the implementation services jointly. Sirex had overall project responsibility and provided project management coordination, drawings, and implementation services. Sequencia provided application consulting and expertise on the use of its products for the specified control platform. The customer provided the plant and process knowledge specific to the application. The customer received a quality project on budget and on schedule. Combined use of implementation resources provided not only a successful implementation, but a system that can be updated easily with new software.

Paul Nowicki