How to select a system integrator
CSIA experts advise setting benchmarks and following key steps to make the right decision for an automation project.
When a manufacturing company is ready to execute plans for an expansion or upgrade in production systems and processes, how do you know if a system integrator can help? Do you even know what you’re looking for?
According to the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA), system integrators design and implement sophisticated control systems solutions for end users in manufacturing, process, and other industrial facilities. With their knowledge of engineering, information technology, and business, system integrators automate manufacturing and processes from the plant floor to the enterprise level. Automation helps manufacturers and processors reduce cost and energy use, increase production, and lower environmental impact.
Following a well-thought-out plan to find a system integrator is essential to ensure a successful outcome when hiring an expert.
"A company’s choice for [a] system integrator should not necessarily be the closest geographically, the least expensive, or the one your company has always used in the past," says Steve Malyszko at Malisko Engineering. "The best integrator is the one for your job-whose core competencies closely match the specific requirements of your project."
There are four steps to consider during the integrator selection process.
1. Define the project
According to Nigel James, president of Burrow Global Automation, project definition is a vital first step. "By creating plans up front that provide details of the objectives, scope, resource, schedule, and budget requirements, a common set of expectations is established among all participants. Defining clear expectations is essential to building meaningful threshold metrics for success," says James. Consider these questions while defining the project.
What’s the motivation behind this project? Determine what is driving your project first, and it will help with any critical decision points that will arise in the process and help keep the team motivated.
What are the project objectives? Create a chart to clearly state the goals and what needs to be accomplished. This defines the objective and deliverables.
What do you want this project to look like when it’s finished? Do you have a complete list of expected deliverables? This is an area that many projects fail to define early on, which leads to issues later in the project.
"It’s not uncommon for clients to skip through this process," says Tom Walther, chief innovation officer at ESE Inc. "It’s easier for them to say what they want, then draw it on the back of an envelope. However, defining the project is the best way to avoid change orders, schedule delays, or scope changes, which can all add to the cost."
Every integrator should have a comprehensive list of steps they recommend at various stages of a project and should work with owners to define which ones are applicable to the specific project.
What are the risks of the project? Are you prepared to manage those risks? Whenever risk is involved, there should be motivation to develop a contingency plan. To mitigate risk, it’s important to map out who is responsible. According to CSIA integrators, this step is often overlooked, even by integrators, who, when completing front-end work for projects, sometimes fail to conduct an adequate risk assessment.
"If this risk isn’t managed, you’ll have to cough up more money to satisfy change order requests to complete the project," says Malyszko. "If you can find an integrator with a good technical and management fit, then you will have mitigated the technical, schedule, and financial risks."
How will you communicate this to everyone involved throughout the process? ESE’s "A good communication plan spells out what is communicated, by whom, to whom, and on what schedule," says Walther. A communications plan can identify the training documentation, manuals, and records to be included as project deliverables and may make it much easier to assemble a request for proposal (RFP).
"Owners should issue an RFP that defines things to a granular level and get a true comparison of all bidders," says James. "If things are left open-ended, bidders will make different assumptions and then the bids will not be comparable."
2. Establish selection criteria
Once the decision has been made to hire a system integrator, either to do the entire job or to supplement the internal system integrator team, there is a lot at stake to find the right partner for the job. If you don’t have in-house expertise for making the integrator selection, consider hiring a third-party technical consultant to help establish selection criteria and participate in the review process. Use what’s most important to the project’s success from the project definition as a frame of reference.
According to Walther, there are several key factors to consider including:
- Experience-"Having an integrator that has extensive experience in your industry means they will know where a lot of the ‘gotchas’ are," says Walther.
- Expertise-Do they have dedicated engineers on staff with knowledge on all the latest technologies, trends, and issues?
- Project management skills-Can they show proof of project management competence?
- Financial stability – Is it a financially stable company?
- Follow-up-Do they provide post-delivery services and support capability?
3. Identify the candidates
A great place to start is with CSIA member integrators. CSIA members are vetted through an application process, agree to adhere to industry best practices, and many have completed a certification process that includes passing an extensive audit in nine key management areas.
In addition to assessing how the candidates stack up with regard to your established selection criteria, consider the answers to these questions:
Does the integrator have the technical sophistication level to handle the project? Make sure the integrator is familiar with industry standards and methodologies. Ask if the integrator and its employees belong to any organizations or if there are professional engineers on staff. Check for certifications. "Perhaps you want an integrator certified on the hardware platform being used for your job," says Tim Jager, PE and project director at DMC. "While a lack of certification may not exclude an integrator, being certified is definitely a plus."
"Working with an integrator who knows, not only the controls side of your business, but also your particular processes, will result in major dividends during the course of the project," says Walther. "Without that fit, clients will spend more time teaching the integrator their processes and in some cases put themselves at risk if the integrator does not know the industry’s state and federal regulations."
Does the integrator have strong business skills? A system integrator should have a human resources program focused on development, training, recruitment, and retention and be in compliance with all applicable state and federal laws. "A bigger question here for most owner organizations revolves around bench depth," says James. "Many integrators only have one or two key employees with the knowledge needed for a specific job. The question most owner organizations should be asking is, "if your key engineer assigned to this job is unavailable, how do you plan to execute?"
Integrator companies should be following industry best practices, such as CSIA Certified integrator companies do.
How strong is the integrator’s project management experience? If the integrator relies on subcontractors, James says it’s critical to review the systems deployed to monitor and control workflow. He points out that, "One of the weaknesses of many integrators is the lack of strong project management processes and oversight of subcontractors. It can be a train wreck, especially when a previous track record of system integrators and subs working together does not exist. That often results in finger pointing, cost overruns, and schedule delays."
If an internal system integrator team will be involved, what will the roles of the respective groups be? Who will do what and when? Be sure to define how the two groups will interface. James recommends that a roles and responsibility matrix be completed up front so that all parties understand their responsibilities as well as those of other team members.
How complete is the proposal preparation? Does the integrator address all the requirements that are required for your satisfaction? Any assumptions and clarifications that the system integrator made in their bid should be clearly stated. Are things quantified in the bid? Look also for a system integrator to outline their expectations for the owner (number of review cycles, expected review and response times) in their proposal.
4. Find the best fit
Now it’s time to narrow your integrator choices down to a pool of three candidates. This number is sufficient to show a range of integrator experience, yet allows for comparison in both pricing differences and technical ability. Too many candidates, and the search becomes more complex than necessary. Find the best fit by addressing these questions.
Are you comfortable asking the integrator questions? If so, are they giving you timely and solid answers? Ask to see references and completed project books to determine whether they are prepared to lead the project.
Are the integrator’s strategic objectives and goals in line with those of your business? Walther explains, "Understanding what drives them and what their values are, will help ensure a good fit with your own company’s culture."
Are you able to visit them in-person to see what systems they’ve designed? Watch the integrator on the job to determine your choice. What is the integrator doing currently that might help you determine his or her skills or experience? Visit her business or factory to see firsthand how her projects work.
"A system integrator helps a company get up to speed quickly on the necessary technology," says Jager. "If an owner is looking for a different PLC platform from what an OEM supports in-house, system integrators can get them ramped up on the new platform or program outlying systems that don’t match the standard or require investment in learning platform technology."
Are you able to meet with your integrator’s project team before documents are signed? It’s important to have a good relationship with your day-to-day contacts and managers. "Don’t forget to add your own expertise here," says Jager. "Bring your knowledge to the table to avoid reinventing the wheel or repeating past mistakes. Tell the integrator everything you know, even if you think it seems unimportant."
Without a reputable integrator as project partner, end users run the risk of delayed projects and projects not being implemented correctly. That can be very costly. But doing the legwork upfront and taking these tips to heart will go a long way to mitigating that risk.
-Contributors to this article include members of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA): Nigel James, Burrow Global Automation; Tom Walther, ESE Inc.; Steve Malyszko, Malisko Engineering; and Tim Jager, DMC.
-The Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) (www.controlsys.org) is a nonprofit, professional association with a mission to advance control system integration for the success of our members and their clients. Through business Best Practices and other methods and opportunities, CSIA strives to improve the business capabilities of its members. Making the control system integration industry more professional and reliable provides a low-risk channel for the application of automation technology to their industrial clients.