Seven tips for better control and instrumentation RFP/RFQ results
As with many projects scheduled for the end of the year, the project needs to be started before the actual year-end so that the funds can be separated across two fiscal years. Unfortunately, time is running out and you need to send out a request for proposal (RFP/RFQ) as soon as possible. Consider these seven tips to be more successful writing an RFP and receiving qualified proposals from the recipient pool for control systems integration projects.
1. Use qualified resources
While this should go without saying, but it is very important that the information in the RFP is accurate and complete. Using an internal or external resource is fine, but they must know or be able to quickly learn the system, scope, and goals in order to provide the data for the RFP.
Consider this scenario: Customer XYZ needs their current supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system upgraded to the latest version for Microsoft Windows 7 compatibility. It is necessary to gather the current software licenses to determine the upgrade path, which has been provided on the RFP. What if, at some point in the lifespan of the system, a 3rd party vendor installed a custom closed source data management software package. If you receive bids without that unique detail (because you may not have known), the system will not run, downtime will extend, and you may not gain access to the source code and have to create another custom solution. Also, new documentation may be necessary and the project could be extended by several weeks. In other words, a complete project failure.
Although this example is a little extreme, it does happen, especially when bidders are "held at bay" by the walls of purchasing and RFP electronic submittal software.
2. The scope defines the cost
The only way to reduce cost is to reduce scope. The small differences in vendor rates and travel time do not affect the final prices very much. That is why whenever there is a large variance between proposals, you should see red flags. It means that there is a good chance that one of the bidders did not understand the scope and therefore did not include portions of the requirements in the price. Individually identify the specific duties to be performed and the expectations you have for each of those duties. Do not generalize! Be as specific as possible. The more detail provided will create a more accurate proposal and reduce the risk of change orders after the fact.
3. Overview architectures
Provide existing control system architectures and future expected architectures. This is critical to your suppliers understanding of the scope of work. Again, the more detail, the better the submissions. Generally, a supplier will want to know the relationship of how each piece of hardware and software are connected. At times, it also helps to identify communication protocols and distances; perhaps for choosing between copper and fiber cables for your ICS network.
It is not necessary to provide fancy 3-D models of everything. Consider the example of a simple control system architecture drawing (right). Something is better than nothing; so at least draw out the main control system components and put a logical connection line between each component that is physically connected in the plant environment. This is not meant to be a physical dimensional representation; just a logical connection diagram.
4. Have a realistic timeline
Most integrators have more than one customer and stay very utilized. When it comes to control system projects, suppliers need time not only to design and build, but also to receive the materials. You can never assume a 4-6 week lead time, especially when you want a custom item. Give yourself 10 weeks for materials and always ask for each vendor’s project duration calendar. Compare each calendar the same way as the proposals. If something is way off then it is possible that there has been a misunderstanding of scope or expectation.
5. Bill of material (BOM) for all bidders
There is a wide range of options for developing a material list including low and high-end materials, multiple products for achieving results, and "add-on" possibilities that could change how the project is implemented. Companies tend to be happier with their proposal submissions when a preliminary BOM is given to each bidder. Any flaw in the BOM can be changed and updated or adjusted after the fact. In either case, the proposal request will generate more accurate proposals due to the fact that each bidder will price the same materials and only their markup will show.
A single BOM also gives the bidder the opportunity to provide options that are much clearer. In many cases, this is a simple add/deduct section in the proposal where each bidder can suggest alternative methods for cost savings or future proofing. If you prefer a single manufacturer, ask for the local business unit or distributor to provide a suggested BOM. This helps keeps things straightforward and allows for your materials for the project to stay within your region, which the distributor has to support anyways.
6. Online bid query form and pre-bid meetings
It’s quite common to have a pre-bid meeting a few days after RFP release. Unless being used to eliminate bidders, this is unrealistic if the goal is to get the best price for the project while lowering risk. Have the pre-bid meeting near the middle of the timeframe with no less than one week after RFP release. Likewise, it doesn’t make sense to have that meeting the day before project deadline either.
Also consider a bidder query form that is online and shared with all bidders. Be sure not to give edit permissions to bidders on the answer form but just allow input of questions on one form, then answer them on another. All inputs are tracked and this provides very efficient communication and higher proposal accuracy. If using electronic bid software, make sure that everyone is comfortable with the process and understands how to submit and receive information. Remember, most suppliers work with a dozen different online portals and many are not user-friendly. There have also been cases where one bidder could see other bids before the deadline, so this must be tested prior to project start.
7. Risk should be considered more than price
While the low price seems to be the nicest-looking bid, but there are many factors that make up a project. The biggest consideration should be risk, not price. Create a weighted qualitative checklist that allows you to rank your proposal based on what is important to you. In any area of a proposal that throws that checklist out of balance, ask the supplier to explain in more detail. You can add anything to your checklist, even intangibles such as trust and bidder personalities. The company awarded the project should be a partner and you will have to be able to work with them throughout the project lifecycle.
A successful project is built on communication. Be sure to give all of your relevant information to your prospective bidders up front and never assume that leaving a critical piece of the project out will result in a lower cost. Do not be the roadblock in your organization, but instead, put in the work so that the project goes smoothly and under budget.
Eli Jenkins is an account manager with Cross Company. He has a background in chemical manufacturing, control system integration, and consultant sales. This article originally appeared on Cross Company’s Innovative Controls blog. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, firstname.lastname@example.org.