Choosing the right system integrator: Criteria to help

Not all systems integrators for factory automation and process controls devices, systems, and software are created equal, and finding the best fit can be a real challenge.

By David McCarthy May 17, 2012

Picking the right systems integrator can make smooth sailing for your dream project; the wrong one can turn your dream into a nightmare. Interested in how to select a great systems integrator? Here’s what you need to know.

Selection Zen

Before you start your outward search for the perfect systems integrator, you need to first look inward to find what’s really important to you or for your project. There are a whole lot of great firms out there, but not all of them are going to be good matches.

Are you doing automation projects all the time and in the market for a long haul partner? Or are your projects few and far between and price is of most concern? Do you have to get that new product out the door, and delivery time is what keeps you up at night?

While the list goes on, the important thing is to sort out all the qualities vital to your project. Take a step back and view your project in the context of your organization and its priorities, and then dissect it to figure out all essential elements. Do that and you have laid the foundation for a great decision.

The following sections can help you find the best system integrator for a particular project and prioritize selection criteria.

Let the journey begin

Once you have sorted out project requirements, start with a list of suitable candidates to evaluate. If you have a funded project, they will definitely be trying to find you, but how best to find them? There are several good options; you should consider using a mix of them.

Engineering trade publications and various industry associations may have online listings of systems integrators. Various filters may help narrow your search. Most technology equipment and software suppliers  have partner programs, often with tiered levels of participation, with online listings of qualified firms. Technology distributors can be an excellent source of references. In larger organizations, colleagues and sister plants also can provide names.

Once you get your starting slate of candidates, look at some best practices in evaluating them.

Context of credentials

Above all else, an ideal partner must be able to execute a project successfully. The most important attribute is competence in performing the work at hand. Requirements usually include expertise in some combination of technology platforms, plant-floor processing equipment, manufacturing intelligence, information technology, and project-execution methodologies. The particulars will depend on the project. Even great integration firms are not necessarily competent in all disciplines relevant to a particular project.

A variety of credentials can help indicate the fitness of the candidate firms. Ensuring that the integration company is certified in the applicable technology platforms can give some assurance that the firm is technically qualified. Usually the candidate firm’s website will list certifications and other credentials. They can and should be confirmed with the governing body’s website.

 Knowledge of the industry and processes may also be of importance. Most industries have one or more trade organizations that represent their interests. Memberships in such associations indicate that the candidate firm is active in the appropriate industries, and the odds of them being in tune with your processing needs increases.

A large variety of business focus certifications can indicate the maturity level of the organization as a whole, ability to execute projects, and long-term viability as a company. As a class, they all generally demonstrate adherence to specific practices across a variety of operational areas of the organization, usually involving external audits.

The good news is that all of these credentials can give some insight into a candidate firm. The bad news is they never should be solely determinant in your selection process. A presence of a credential is no guarantee of satisfactory performance, nor is the lack thereof an indication of impending doom.

Credentials are a bit of a cottage industry in the system integration community, particularly among technology providers. For example, all known programs require annual program fees, which range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars a year. Some programs require revenue commitments, which some integrators resist to maintain platform independence.

While credentials can be quite useful in a search for the ideal firm, more criteria are needed. This is where actual references come into play.

References please

If you are like most people, you would prefer that your systems integrator is not learning on the job on your project. This is where references are invaluable in determining your ideal choice. There are a few things to consider when evaluating a firm’s reference list.

First, there is nothing like talking with actual clients of your candidate firms. Ask them to provide client contacts from their reference list, and take the time to contact these individuals. When contacting the references, great questions to ask include: Did the sales team understand the requirements? Did the project team and technical solution meet the requirements? Did the firm deliver in the promised time frame? Was plant staff properly trained? Did the firm offer support after the installation? Were expectations met, exceeded, or not met?

 All these questions are generic enough and can provide outstanding insight into the performance of the firm in the real world, particularly if checked against several clients from different organizations.

While the most important references are those most closely matching your project requirements, the complete list can also give some insight into the firm, even for imperfect reference matches. For example, if you notice a firm has done many projects across several facilities for a major industry player, this can be a pretty good tacit endorsement from that major firm. Many references of each aspect of your project, even if they are not combined in one reference, can still be a good indication of competence.

Size matters

System integration firms come in all sizes, from individual consultants to hundreds of staff engineers across a wide variety of disciplines. Your ideal firm must have enough resource depth for your project work. This can be a one-person firm with one really great engineer, if your projects tend to be small and spaced apart, or it may require a really large firm if your needs are great enough.

The annual revenue of your candidate firm needs to make sense compared to the size of your project. Awarding a $2 million project to a firm with annual revenue of $500,000 is a recipe for disaster. The firm will likely not have the capital, procedures, and other resources required to successfully execute your project, even if it has fantastic engineers that in all other ways make sense.

As a general rule, larger firms are going to be better at complex projects requiring lots of coordination and many hours to execute. In general, bigger firms with more resources may also have more overhead than smaller firms. Smaller firms can be more flexible and may be more cost effective, if other criteria match the project requirements.

One important aspect to keep in mind is that regardless of the number of engineers a firm employs, it is the number of available engineers in the time frame you need them that is of real import. One hundred engineers serve no purpose if you need something now and no one is available for 6 weeks. Even large firms have a limit to their capacity, and very likely your project has a very specific mix of talent requirements. This tends to winnow the number of ideal resources available for your project in any organization.

Age before beauty

While there has been some difference of opinion on the topic of business survival rates, current conventional wisdom suggests about two thirds of all startups are still operating after their second year, about half after four years, and about one third after eight years. Everybody wants a firm that will stand behind their work. Firms that have been around for a while have a better chance of being there when you need them.

A match made in heaven

It is possible to find your perfect systems integrator match, whether for a single date on a project or a long-term relationship commitment. What makes a firm great for one client may have a different meaning for you. Knowing what is important to you and using the techniques above will make your dream choice a reality.

– David McCarthy is president and chief executive officer of TriCore Inc. Edited by Amanda McLeman, Control Engineering, Consulting-Specifying Engineer, and Plant Engineering.