How to choose a systems integrator

A system integrator can help end users navigate the best path toward a new optimized automation system solution

By Lynn Njaa November 29, 2020

Many manufacturers are leveraging new technologies, such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), cloud and edge computing, virtual reality and the like, to digitally transform their operations. Some are migrating their legacy control systems while others are looking to perform smaller system maintenance upgrades, to improve operations and reduce downtime. No matter the size, an upgrade or migration project can be complex, and the risks can be high.

Navigating the best path forward toward a new optimized automation system solution often requires additional resources in the form of an external third-party partner like a systems integrator (SI) or automation solutions provider. The best choice depends on who can meet the necessary requirements in the facility.

With the plethora of SIs out there — from small and perhaps independently-owned to those who have partnerships or are embedded in big engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) companies — trying to contrast and compare who can meet facility and project requirements is no easy task. In addition, some distributed control system (DCS) and programmable logic controller (PLC) suppliers offer engineering services on their specific products.

All SIs have their strengths and weaknesses. Some may have extensive knowledge on their own equipment, but limited or no knowledge on equipment outside of their specific products. Others might provide a one-stop shop, but they may lack automation expertise as it is only a small portion of their business.

What is the best choice? It is best engaging with an automation partner who has applied, unbiased platform-independent process control experience working across a wide range of manufacturing processes and automation technologies. Such expertise will likely result in a more successful project execution. To get started, consider the following checklist and a few other points and topics worthy of further investigation that can help guide the selection process.

Business and market knowledge

  • Does the SI have expertise in many vertical industries?
    • This is important because a benefit of having a partner with experience in many industries is they can cross-pollinate solutions, best practices and engineering expertise.
  • Does the SI have industry expertise specific to the business?
    • Having industry-specific experience is important to understanding the potential return on investment (ROI), as well as understanding the potential competitive advantages.
  • Is the SI open-minded to the company’s culture, and do they understand its business needs?
  • If an SI partnership is already in the early stages, are they listening to key stakeholders? Or are they dictating to them? Do they collaborate with company personnel, or do they work in silence and present something that ends up requiring changes to it — maybe repeatedly? Well, that’s not cool.

Program/project management capabilities

  • Locate a project management office (PMO)
  • Ensure project managers have project management professional (PMP) certification
  • Expect a solid and proven methodology for execution and quality control
  • Is a well-documented quality program in place?
  • Is a well-documented project audit process in place?
  • Can the SI demonstrate a substantial history of records?
  • Can they show template samples?

Planning and budgeting capabilities

  • Does the SI have business case development experience to get the migration or project moving forward? This is a plus if they do.
  • Can they help fill any justification gaps to get the project funded?
  • Do they have support, expertise and tools for capital planning and for project funding?
  • Can the SI demonstrate experience in these practices?
  • Can they provide the confidence they have solid cost-estimating tools to stay within budget?
  • Will the SI provide the granularity of detail needed to gain company leadership confidence and provide it in native format so as not to “reinvent the wheel?”

Turnkey management

The following elements are needed to provide a full turnkey management solution:

  • Front-end engineering
  • Design management
  • Integration management
  • Deployment management
  • Field services and/or construction management
  • Communication management
  • Optimization, advanced process control
  • Offerings for onsite and offsite specific training for a new system
  • Sustaining services
  • Staffing capabilities while maintaining the availability of project personnel

Main automation contractor (MAC)

An automation solutions provider with proven services, capabilities and experience — one company to handle all controls requirements — so there is only one point of contact instead of many points of contact for cross communications. There should be no need to hire separate companies to take care of all the automation needs. The full list of automation abilities includes:

Automation solutions

  • Process automation
  • Control system design
  • Control system integration
  • Control system migration
  • Regulatory compliance
  • Data centers
  • Building automation
  • Virtualization
  • Human-machine interface (HMI) design, including high-performance graphics design
  • Advanced process control (APC)
  • Field services
  • Technician services and calibration
  • Shutdown, turnaround and outage support
  • Installation services
  • Commissioning/construction management
  • Large-scale project execution.

Enterprise integration

  • Manufacturing operations technology consulting
  • Manufacturing/enterprise resource planning (ERP) integration
  • Smart manufacturing/IIoT
  • Asset performance
  • Performance analytics
  • Manufacturing execution
  • Work process management.

Strategic manufacturing solutions

  • Productivity improvements
  • Industrial cybersecurity
  • Energy efficiency
  • Automation strategy
  • Arc flash prevention.

Sustaining services

  • Maintenance and support contracts
  • Site services
  • 24/7/365 remote management and monitoring support.

Formal customer satisfaction feedback mechanism

  • Can they share their Net Promoter Score (NPS) if they have one? For more information, check out Net Promoter Score.
  • Request references
  • Ask for case studies
    • Do they apply to the platform?
    • Do they apply to the industry?

Look for overpromises

  • Find a trusted, honest partner with strong principles and work ethics. A company will discover there is no substitution for working with an SI with these qualities.
  • Compare pricing to promises made.
  • Be aware the cheapest isn’t always the least expensive. “If you don’t have time to do it once, you certainly don’t have time to do it twice.”— Unknown.
  • Watch out for poor design work due to a lack of time spent planning. This can be twice as costly as a good initial plan/solution/design.
  • Look for a crew mix of senior and junior personnel. No company can afford to give up all their superstars. Besides, who would want to pay for their rates? A lot of junior talent is out there who, with the right guidance, will perform beyond expectations.
  • Look for fairness and competitiveness.

Familiarity with standards

  • An SI who understands compliance to general best practices, as well as regulations to all equipment, will help mitigate risk and keep the company compliant.

Code migration assets

  • Has the tools and accelerators to automatically capture and “rewrite” the code into the new system. No tool is perfect, but it can save upward of 50% of code migration time. 

Technical breadth and depth of portfolio and expertise

  • Offers broad expertise of most process control systems
  • Provides access to leading-edge technology
  • Offers continued education and mentoring within the organization to expand versatility of resources on all control systems and stays current with new technologies
  • Has diversity and bench strength — in other words, is there just “a guy” that can help or are there several to many resources in case “the guy” is busy?
  • Meets all control system requirements, regardless of the control system. A single supplier that has depth of expertise in multiple DCSs, PLCs and communication protocols can make everything talk together. This benefit removes the risk of “Oh, we don’t take care of that part of the control system.”
  • Is focused on mitigating cybersecurity risks.

Track record of innovation: Problem solvers

  • Look for consultants experienced in problem solving. Each consultant has a specific strength and, when pooled, can make big things happen.
  • Ensure they can look beyond the technology and help develop good business process management practices for the future.
  • Find someone who is strategy- and solution-focused to help meet business objectives. 

Financial stability and backing

  • Is the trusted resource too small and might disappear overnight if they win the lottery or begin to have financial trouble? If so, then what?
  • Does the SI have many locations with several resources in various places to call on when needed?

This is the checklist, which will require further review and input from key stakeholders to ensure a successful systems integrator selection process. Now for some more key takeaways.

Review and understand the most important items on the list for the business, but don’t ignore the rest of the list. Take the time to investigate each item. Any one of these items can rear its ugly head on an upgrade project or migration. And the thought of, “If I’d only known,” is a terrible feeling and will result in sleepless nights. Think through the risks of each item and consider whether stakeholders have the appetite for the worst-case scenario.

There is at least one systems integrator that can check all the boxes on the list to fulfill company requirements. The trusted partner can realize all of the company’s needs with one phone call. Finding a knowledgeable, systems integrator who can lead the company to future success is worth the time and effort.

MAVERICK Technologies is a member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) and a CFE Media content partner.

Author Bio: Lynn Njaa is business development manager, DCSNext process automation consultant with Maverick Technologies.