Commentary: Would you like service with that?

Automation vendors are expanding management and service options. Should you use them?
By Control Engineering Staff October 1, 2008

It isn’t exactly the latest news, but large scale control system providers are extending their reach by offering consultation, design, system integration, construction, service, operational management, and even plant optimization services. What does this mean to you?

There’s no question that the range of products and services you can get from control system vendors is growing. Different companies are pushing in different directions, but the idea is the same: you aren’t just buying a product, it’s a relationship. The vendors are doing it because it’s difficult to grow their businesses fast enough on products alone. Customers are embracing it because they don’t have the staff to implement projects like they used to.

The evidence is everywhere. Two of the stories below are “new project” releases from Honeywell and Invensys . Both center heavily on project service elements in addition to hardware. A story in last month’s issue of this newsletter included comments from Larry O’Brien ARC Advisory Group who said,

“ARC traditionally separates services market into two portions: There’s the projects services side of the business, which is projects, startup, and commissioning, and then there’s the after-sale segment of the business, which we call operational services. The most growth that’s happening right now is in the operational services side. This can be a wide range of services. It can be anything from sourcing maintenance of your DCS to performance related services designed to increase the overall performance of your system and your manufacturing process.”

O’Brien says the impact on users is that there is a much wider range of services from which to choose, from simple loop tuning services, to full performance management including a complete performance audit of your plant to establish a baseline measurement and implement solutions to increase plant performance. “This is good news in that you have a lot of options. On the other hand, it’s severely complicated the landscape of the marketplace right now,” O’Brien adds. ( Listen to O’Brien’s full comments .)

How does this help you? Obviously it extends your capabilities, particularly in areas where you don’t have as large a staff as you need to cover everything in-house. The question is how far do you trust someone with your process?

It’s understandable that someone who is thoroughly trained in the functioning of a specific control system platform could easily know more about it than your operators. Moreover, engineers who travel from plant to plant see what various companies are doing to improve process performance. Clever companies’ service people are gathering these best practices and deploying them among their ranks for use in your plant. That guy from your DCS provider who’s tuning your loops as a service is drawing upon many collective experiences. Process optimization routines are based upon trials and lessons learned in dozens of plant environments.

Of course having more choices makes life more complicated. As you compare competing offers, it may be difficult to know who is offering what. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Are proposals worded in sufficient detail with clear definitions so you know what you’re looking at?

  • Who is responsible for what?

  • What does a “process guarantee” really mean in this context?

  • Who bears the cost if things go haywire?

As time goes on and everyone gains experience, these issues will become more standardized and differences will be easier to see. Some companies are better than others at this point, so the moral of the story is to explore all your options, but move with a reasonable level of caution. Of course that’s easy to say in general but difficult to quantify in specifics. It’s all part of the process.

—Peter Welander, process industries editor, ,
Process & Advanced Control Monthly
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