CSIA Certification: System integrator best business practices

Of course your company has computer backups, disaster recovery plans, and internal financial controls, but does your control system integrator? Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) advice to control system integrators can help any company’s business practices.

By Robert Lowe, Control System Integrators Association February 23, 2011

Executing a control system integration project requires a high level of technical expertise. Executing a successful project requires technical expertise plus the business knowledge essential to building and sustaining a professional services firm.

Certification by the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) testifies to the soundness of a control system integrator’s business practices. Certification provides an extra level of assurance that an integration firm is a well-managed, stable business—one with internal quality audits, computer system backups, disaster recovery plans, and other best practices that reduce risk and contribute to a successful project.

To become CSIA certified, a control system integrator must pass a rigorous, independent audit covering 76 criteria. The 76 criteria used in the audit are those CSIA and clients of CSIA member companies consider the most critical in operating a successful control systems integration company.

Criteria used by the independent auditors help control system integrators become better at what they do and better serve end users, machine builders, and other clients. These criteria can help any engineering or manufacturing firm, including those involved in automation, controls, and instrumentation, become more effective, and profitable.

General management criteria cover critical areas that significantly affect the integrator’s overall success and provide the framework for a sustainable company. Auditors look for:

  • Strategic plans. Strategic plans identify the integrator’s purpose, long-range plans, and objectives and goals. Strategic planning provides assurance that the integrator has identified the human, technical, and financial resources for continuing sustainability.
  • KPIs. Just as your plant has key performance indicators, the integrator needs KPIs, too. Asking about these KPIs gives you a window into the integrator’s stability and viability.
  • Computer system. A corporate computer system and commercial software that supports all aspects of company operations, a backup system, and associated procedures prevent the loss of project data and other business data such as finances.
  • Insurance coverage. If the worst nightmare occurs, you want to know that there is financial depth to see a project through or provide replacement at a later time.
  • Disaster recovery plans. Detailed, written disaster recovery plans describe what actions the integrator will take if a disaster occurs. You want to know that the business will continue with only minor interruptions in service.

Human resource criteria are vital to the ability of the integrator to provide the personnel to meet your needs. You rely on the integrator to be your trusted advisor in planning and implementing automation technology to improve your operations. A certified control system integrator uses best practices in hiring, training, and, most importantly, retaining top-quality staff. Continuity in staffing of your project saves everyone time and contributes to the overall success of your project. An effective performance management program and training on internal procedures, hard and soft skills, safety, and management all contribute to high employee retention, as do good communications, competitive compensation, and a properly managed benefits program.

Marketing, business development, and sales management keep the pipeline of work full, which sustains and contributes to the viability of the integrator. Professionally created, up-to-date marketing materials and website and use of social media to engage users are signs of a vibrant marketing program.

Look for a business development team that understands your needs and demonstrates that the integrator has the technical and financial capability to meet your objectives. The integrator’s proposal should respond specifically to your request for proposal and sufficiently describe the scope of work, scope of supply, and project risks. An executive overview enables those not directly involved in the project to understand what is being provided by the integrator. Consistent, competitive pricing and equitable terms and conditions support a long-term end user/integrator relationship.

Good financial management by an integrator gives you the comfort of knowing that the integrator is not likely to close its doors during a project. A certified integrator pays careful attention to financial planning and budgets, forecasts cash flow, monitors financial KPIs, and follows a GAAP-compliant financial system. Reliable lines of credit enable project purchases. The integrator’s invoicing system is linked to project management.

As the client of an integrator, you will want to know that the integrator properly manages taxes, monitors work-in-process and its effect on cash flow, oversees subcontractor finances, handles shipping charges properly, and maintains the security of financial records.

Project management is right at the core of all applications. A good project management system requires a commitment from the integrator and cooperation by you, the end user. Each component of a project management system serves a purpose and is essential to project success. The components include contract management, procurement management (what products and services the integrator must buy), a written and mutually signed project management plan, a documented project risk management plan including roles and responsibilities if a risk occurs, project resource management (personnel required for execution), a communications plan, scope management, schedule management, budget management, change management, and quality management.

System development lifecycle activities are directly involved in producing deliverables within the context of a project. There are a defined scope, deliverables, and a known ending point. Well-structured system development lifecycle activities include a project kickoff that gets the integrator’s project team well oriented, a kickoff with your team, end user requirements articulated by you or by the integrator after receiving your input, specified system requirements, designs that will provide solutions that meet both the user and system requirements, reviews with you to verify designs, and a development process including drawings, software, and other manufacturing activities to implement the designs.

Proper testing that correlates to the requirements concludes the system development lifecycle. Included is an acceptance test at the integrator’s facility, followed by commissioning and acceptance testing at your facility.

Supporting activities that contribute to successful project execution include standards for procurement management to control costs. The auditors also look for risk management standards for anticipating and mitigating risks before the project begins or having a "plan B" if something goes awry during the project, which could cause costly overruns and delays.

Configuration management deals with managing change, for example, changes in requirements, designs, and computer programs. Costs rise and delays occur when changes in requirements or system design are not communicated to the entire design and programming team or the assembly shop.

Templates for drawings and computer programs provide efficiency and repeatability in development, which reduces cost and enables more efficient end-user maintenance.

Quality assurance management is a distinct dimension of an integrator, not just a mind-set. Most manufacturing and processing operations have implemented a continuous improvement, quality management program. You should expect a defined quality program within your integrator vendor as well.

An integrator’s quality program covers project methodologies, standards, templates, purchasing, risk management, reuse programs, personnel safety, hard and soft skills training, and client service, as well as client satisfaction, marketing, and business development. Just as ISO certification indicates that a quality process exists in a company, CSIA certification shows a commitment to quality and continuous improvement.

– Robert Lowe is the executive director of the Control System Integrators Association. Contact him at execdir(at)controlsys.org. www.controlsys.org

CSIA Certified Integrators master system development lifecycle

The "V" associated with the development lifecycle for an automation project graphically indicates the correlation between the requirements on the left and the corresponding results on the right, thus the "Traceability" characteristic. To pass the certification audit, a CSIA member must demonstrate procedures for accomplishing each step.

Also read: Do end users benefit from system integrator certification?

Find an CSIA-certified (or other) system integrator using the Control Engineering Automation Integrator Guide at www.controleng.com/integrators

See the Control Engineering System Integration Channel: https://www.controleng.com/channels/system-integration.html