System Integrators

How to evaluate a system integrator for a project

There are many aspects to consider when evaluating a system integrator for a project, and taking the time to ask important questions up front allows a company to reap long-term benefits.
By John Loose April 4, 2019
Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, CFE Media, Control Engineering

Evaluating a system integrator for upcoming projects is an important part of the project process and the decision typically affects more than one project. If the initial project is a success, this could end up being the start to a relationship that lasts over a number of projects and multiple years. Making the first project a success, however, requires many steps from the integrator and the company looking to hire one.

Creating a documentation system

A well-established documentation system is key to any project’s success. Any systems integrator should be able to describe its documentation system. A systems integrator should also have a team of well-trained and versatile engineers who can support the system. A systems integrator’s résumé can provide the customer a deeper understanding of experience and expertise.

Shown are outdoor tanks and piping for Angel's Envy Distillery, Louisville, Ky. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, CFE Media, Control Engineering

Shown are outdoor tanks and piping for Angel’s Envy Distillery, Louisville, Ky. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, CFE Media, Control Engineering

Evaluate previous integrator projects

Examining a system integrator’s previous projects is useful. Ideally, the company hiring the integrator would like to have these projects fall within the same industry, but it is not necessarily a requirement. There are two types of processes: continuous and batch. In many ways, batch operations are similar to one another and programming is straightforward. The differences come down to features and special functions, which can range from simple to complex. Customization also can vary.

Focusing on these key points are essential for determining a systems integrator for the next project.

When to bring in a systems integrator

In any project, it is best to get all parties involved as early as possible, though a systems integrator does not need to be a part of building design. However, getting the systems integrator involved when the discussion of piping and instrument diagram (P&ID) begins is a good idea. This gives the integrator the ability to review the P&IDs, estimate an input/output (I/O) list and gain an understanding of the process. Another key point is reviewing the tag-names of the devices. This may sound insignificant, but naming conventions, even if already established, tend to have deviations.

Benefits of a systems integrator

A good systems integrator will be able to provide these benefits for a project:

  • Help design the control system from the ground up
  • Design and build panels
  • Provide guidance on a control system platform
  • Create and review P&IDs
  • Provide onsite support or mobilize an engineering services group that can provide help with systems
  • Provide a knowledgeable sales staff
  • Add an emergency service in the event of worst-case scenarios.

The cost of a system integrator

Hiring a systems integrator may cost more up front compared to vendor services or in-house personnel, but the benefit of a systems integrator is access to a much larger knowledge base that can resolve a majority of potentially control system problems. Most systems integrators also have support contracts with their major suppliers that allow them to have priority over many others calling in for support. With access to a systems integrator and its team, companies will have an easier time maintaining a schedule and sticking to deadlines.

Documentation often is overlooked when using vendor services or in-house personnel. One of the major benefits of using a systems integrator is the company is forced to document the facility’s process and control system. These documents are given to the end user at the end of commissioning. Using a systems integrator allows in-house personnel to stay focused on tasks within the project.

Evaluating different control systems

Evaluating different control systems is a difficult task that requires extensive knowledge of the process and operations. Getting feedback from the operations department and operators that work the day to day is recommended.

The majority of control systems provide the same basic functions, but they differ in their special features and complicated task functions.

Questions to consider include:

  • Am I running a continuous or batch operation?
  • How much interfacing do my employees or I want to have with the programming after the conclusion of the project?
  • Do I need redundancy?
  • What communication do I need?
  • Do I have any customization in my current control system? Do I want/need customization?
  • What historical data do I want to retain, and for how long?

Another determining point is the existing control system. More questions to consider include:

  • Is this a legacy system and, if so, does the company still exist? Is there current support for the system?
  • Do I want to upgrade the control system? Is there an upgrade path for this system?
  • Is starting with a completely different system the only option if no upgrade path is available? What features do I want to retain from my existing control system?
  • Is my current system redundant?

System integrator vs. vendor services

Having a local systems integrator is a luxury most facilities do not have. When planning any expansion or building a new facility in a different city, locating the nearest systems integrator is a good idea.

Being able to have expertise within such a close range can lower obvious costs. It’s also crucial for emergency services. If critical issues arise that need to be addressed and a systems integrator is within a close proximity, this can reduce the amount of downtime and lost production. With the increasing threat of cyber attacks, gaining remote access is more cumbersome. There are even limitations to remote access and having a systems integrator onsite same day is a big benefit.

System integrators also have knowledge about multiple platforms. If you have a complicated system with multiple platforms, a system integrator often can handle different platforms and troubleshoot more effectively.

John Loose is an integration engineer, Cross Co., a CFE Media content partner. This article originally appeared on Cross Co.’s process control integration blog. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

MORE ANSWERS

Keywords: System integration, project management

Evaluating a systems integrator before starting a project is a major undertaking and many questions need to be addressed.

Companies should learn about a system integrator’s expertise and what specific industries it has worked in.

System integrators usually have expertise and knowledge about multiple vendors.

Consider this

What is the biggest priority you have when choosing a systems integrator for a project?


John Loose
Author Bio: John Loose, integration engineer, Cross Co.