System Integration

Marshal your virtual resources

In a tight job market, finding outside partners is a global process
By Heath Stephens, PE December 19, 2018
Courtesy: Hargrove Controls + Automation

System integration is a challenging business. It’s a specialty among specialties. Demand is high, and schedules are short. How do you put together a winning strategy merging the right technology and the right people? How do you maximize efficiency and deliver quality projects to your clients?

The problem starts with finding good teammates to hire. Few universities offer degree programs that focus on control system practice, so few new graduates are even aware of our field, much less able to hit the ground running.

The next issue is system propriety. Vendors may share some basic system architecture principles, but the details are unique and proprietary to each system. Standard programming languages like Visual Basic, C, or XML may be used for certain control system tasks and subsystems, but most of the programming will be in languages unique to each system.

Talent pools in any one geographic area are always limited. Hargrove invests extensively in teammate development and internal training, but system experts with 20 years of experience are always in short supply. Like most system integrators, the challenge of finding and retaining top talent is a constant effort.

A small system integrator working on small projects can ensure project success by pairing one senior engineer with one or two junior engineers. They can test on a local machine.

Building a virtual network is much like building a hard-wired network: finding many wires all leading to the same system. Courtesy: Hargrove Controls + Automation

Building a virtual network is much like building a hard-wired network: finding many wires all leading to the same system. Courtesy: Hargrove Controls + Automation

But how do you scale up? How do you grow from 10 engineers working on five small projects, to more than 100 engineers in multiple offices working on dozens of projects of all sizes? For us the answer was virtualization, not just of hardware, but of our project teams.

Using a virtual workforce

Like many systems integrators, Hargrove performs work on multiple programmable logic controllers (PLCs), distributed control systems (DCS), and even safety instrumented system (SIS) platforms. Creating a development environment for each client and each project is a challenging task itself.

We learned early on about the advantages of hardware virtualization. The ability to host multiple control system platforms and versions saves time and money. That is the obvious advantage. It is the advantage most engineers will think about when building their first virtual machine host. However, it is not the biggest advantage. It’s not the advantage that transforms an organization, though it does increase efficiency. Yes, it helps the bottom line, but it does little to improve quality or increase client satisfaction.

The real advantage of hardware virtualization is a psychological one. Hardware virtualization helps remove the mental barrier that the engineer must physically be in the same room as his or her development hardware resources. From there, it is a small leap to realize that the engineer does not need to be in the same building, or city, or even state. Virtual hardware can live in the cloud.

Here is where we tie back to finding talent and marshalling a team for large projects. Virtualization decouples the physical link between engineer and hardware. Once project team members feel they can contribute to a project even if they are working remotely, we have created an environment conducive to virtual teaming. Virtual teaming allows assembling teams with the right people, with less emphasis on their physical location. It provides the ability to tap talent pools from multiple geographic areas.

Whether onsite or virtual, the most important part of any successful integration project is quality. It is the key to client satisfaction and repeat business. Courtesy: Hargrove Controls + Automation

Whether onsite or virtual, the most important part of any successful integration project is quality. It is the key to client satisfaction and repeat business. Courtesy: Hargrove Controls + Automation

It could be argued that you can have virtual teams, people from different locations working together, without virtualizing the development platform. Some project team members would remotely connect to hardware in one office location. The problem with this is psychological. By having the development platform in one location and team members in multiple, you have created two tiers in the project team. In essence, you have split the team. One group is the “local” group with the development platform, and the second group is assisting. You already have created different levels of ownership across the team. Having the development platform virtualized in the cloud puts it in a neutral space, where all project team members have equal ownership of the system. This is key for successful project execution.

Hargrove routinely uses virtual teaming to execute projects. It has transformed the way we staff and plan projects. It allows us to better utilize resources across offices. Most importantly, it allows us to connect people with the right expertise to projects regardless of location.

Meeting the challenges

A recent large DCS migration project in Texas was staffed with control system engineers from our Texas and Alabama offices. The virtual teaming concepts allowed us to handle a project that no single office would have had sufficient expertise to fully execute. It also prevented us from making multiple temporary hires and all the vetting and training that goes with that process. The result was a successful project and a satisfied client. Virtualization allowed us to improve quality because we had the right people on the team.

Virtual teaming does come with challenges. It works best with people that have some sort of existing personal connection. That may mean having in-person kickoff meetings, teaming individuals that have worked on other projects before, or bringing project team members together to execute a portion of a project. Done properly, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. You can pull together all of your virtual resources, both technology and people, to improve project efficiency and quality. Project quality is the key to client satisfaction and repeat business.

Heath Stephens, PE, is engineering leader for Mobile, Ala.-based Hargrove Controls + Automation, a CSIA Certified Member.

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Heath Stephens, PE
Author Bio: Engineering leader for Mobile, Ala.-based Hargrove Controls + Automation, a CSIA Certified Member.