Improve project success, choose the right system integrator

The proper selection of a system integrator can make the difference between a failed project and a successful one. It can also make a difference in the level of success.

By Philip R Frechette June 4, 2012

Proper selection of a system integrator can make the difference between a failed project and a successful one. It can also make a difference in the level of success.

Companies have many different needs for hiring integrators. Sometimes they simply need to complement the project team. Other times they need an integrator to provide total system design build, as the end user does not have internal resources to implement the project. There are many different needs between these two extremes.

The following are some of the things to consider when deciding whether to do the project, tasks within the project, and whether to use in-house resources or use an outside engineering company or integrator to implement or augment the project.

  • Company’s in-house capability: This should include a thorough and frank review of the company’s capabilities (strengths and weaknesses) for implementing the project.
  • Company capacity: Even if the company has the capability to do the project or tasks in-house, it may not have the capacity given the current or near future company workloads.
  • Cost associated with the project or task: Given the company’s capabilities and capacity, consider whether the project or task could be implemented at a lower cost outside rather than in-house. The cost to implement is related not only to labor rate, but even more to costs incurred as the result of additional downtime and reduced uptime caused by stretching the company’s available resources.

Once the decision has been made to contract an engineering company or systems integrator to do the project or tasks within the project, then the following should be a path to continue toward a successful project.

The needs should drive the selection process. Often the system integrator is selected for the wrong reasons, such as hourly rate, company size, or because it is part of the “good old boy” network. To be sure, one who is selecting an open heart surgeon to do a cardiac valve replacement rarely asks for the surgeon’s hourly rate. The decision maker does not look for someone who is experienced in surgery of the human body but wants the best candidate who specializes in open heart surgery, with a good track record and experience. It is safe to assume that the surgeon’s technical know-how of the aortic valve replacement procedure, as well as the number of successful open heart surgeries that the surgical candidate has performed, are at the forefront of the patient’s selection criteria.


Most of the time the patient knows only that a valve is defective and needs to be replaced but certainly cannot write a good procedural description for the integrator of the heart valve (the surgeon) or even a description of the valve or operation that is needed.

When a process engineer or controls engineer is managing a project and has the need to hire the project implementation from a systems integrator, the decision-making process should be similar to the example of selecting a surgeon. An extremely detailed functional description covers every detail to be done to program and design a system, and details regarding how the system should react to each abnormal and normal process fluctuation.

Also, consider if the design is specification broad, and not specific. In one case the detail can be so accurate that all that is needed is a programmer who can read and follow directions. In the other, the integration team needs to have a lead engineer (specialist surgeon) who is experienced in the application and can orchestrate the total integration, lead the implementing team, and do the total integration in a reasonable time. A surgeon cannot be in the operating room for days on end without consequences, and neither can a plant be out of business for days or weeks on end.

A system integrator should have the capability to implement the job with a minimum of end-user support, in reasonable time, and at an affordable cost, keeping in mind that time is also money—not just an hourly integrator rate but lost production time as well. Many different components can be selected, and even though all may be an adequate selection for the proper application, not all are a good selection for every application. Most often the failure of system integration is a result of the wrong component or control strategy being selected. That is not to say that the selected component or strategy is defective, but it is misapplied.

Often I am asked, “What is the best meter for the food industry?” To which I answer, “for what application?” That is why it is important to select an integrator that knows the application, its constraints, and nuances.

Here are criteria for selecting an integrator for the integration project at hand:

  • Knowledge of your industry
  • Knowledge and experience in the application for the project
  • A strong reference list of successful applications it has implemented for your process requirements
  • A reputation of being one of the best in your application, especially if that application involves process, and its control
  • A staff to support all aspects of the integration
  • Ability to develop the level of system detailed description necessary for the project application implementation
  • Project management, with a solid integration methodology
  • Process design (proper selection of components, both process and control, and experience in proper selection)
  • Product technology requirements, such as food technology, gas technology, oil and gas, plastics, steel, chemical, etc.
  • An integration tool box that includes: standard utilities, programs, vehicles, subroutines, sequencers, algorithms, databases, advanced control strategies specific to the application, and process and control drawings
  • Control system design and implementation, instrumentation, PLC, PC, HMI, SCADA, etc.
  • Electrical design capabilities
  • Piping design capabilities
  • Process equipment sizing and selection procedures
  • Proper instrument sizing and selection procedures
  • Programming staff to develop the application software in a timely manner, such as PLC code, HMI development, database design and implementation, historian configuration and implementation, report generation, etc.
  • Knowledge of all applicable regulatory requirements: FDA, departments of agriculture, TTB, EPA, OSHA, USDA, local authorities, state authorities etc., for the project specific application
  • A thorough understanding of all applicable laws and regulations to which the integration must comply
  • Manufacturing ability to build the required process and/or control panels, skids, and subassemblies
  • Factory acceptance testing capability for the system
  • Installation capabilities and experience (either leading, supervising, or actually implementing)
  • Commissioning of the system from bumping valves and motors, dry running, and running in water to commercial production
  • Ability to develop and conduct the training program for: operations, maintenance, line management, sanitarians, laboratory, etc.
  • A track record of providing adequate or superior documentation, sufficient to continue after the project independent and free from the integrator (no one wants to be held hostage)
  • Ability to support the design, build, integration with other suppliers to the overall plant needs, commissioning, training, putting into commercial production, and after-commissioning support
  • Accountability: Does the company want to pay a premium for one point of contact for project implementation, in addition to tightly defined performance guarantees, or can the company manage multiple contacts for different project areas and hold each contractor accountable for its portion of the project? This can drive the decision of contracting several engineering and control integrator companies versus one source for the process and control engineering from one company.

The best way to select the proper integrator for a project is to evaluate the project’s needs, your company’s in-house expertise and ability to meet those needs, the availability of your company’s resources to meet all aspects the project requires in the time allowed, and therefore what the expectations will be from the integrator. Using the details listed above, develop a list of the tasks the integrator will perform for you (total design, programming only, or something in between) and generate a decision-making list of your expectations and the capabilities the integrator will need to implement the project integration. Include your weighting of the importance of each of these.

Analyze your lists; select three of four of the most qualified integrators you can find that fit your criteria; contact each to discuss timing and requirements of the project; and send each candidate the project requirements and ask for its proposal on how they would execute the project, the time line, and the cost of the project. Once you receive each proposal, fill out a spreadsheet evaluating each integrator’s proposal against your criteria with the associated weight of each point in the criteria, and then make you choice.

– Philip R Frechette is president and founder of JCS Process and Control Systems Engineering Co. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager CFE Media, Control Engineering, Plant Engineering, and Consulting-Specifying Engineer, mhoske(at)

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