System integration is a critical element in project design

Involve a system integrator early in project design to help ensure high-quality projects that satisfy project requirements. See project cost influence graphic.

By Todd Williams July 15, 2013

Working for a company that executes large projects using a design-build philosophy, I have witnessed the benefits of the traditional architect and engineer (A&E) approach to the design process. An A&E customer-focused approach uses design milestones for concept/feasibility and 30%, 60%, and 90% design reviews, with customer approvals at each stage. Key project disciplines are represented throughout the process to ensure the design functions as one cohesive solution.

The design team makeup is crucial to project success, yet many end-customers and A&E firms do not consider system integration as one of the major disciplines included in the design process. Frequently, system integrators aren’t brought into a project until the detailed design is nearly finalized and the project is moving into the construction phase. At this point in the project, the integrator is unable to positively influence a project without a significant cost impact. Altering this approach and instead involving a systems integrator early can reduce project costs and risks compared to traditional methods, especially those that include a pre-selected product vendor.

The project cost influence curve presents the influence opportunity in correlation with project expenditure throughout any project lifecycle. Once the detailed design phase has been reached, the influence opportunity rapidly declines while the cost expenditure quickly increases. Executing a project in this manner causes system integration to be treated as a commodity purchase similar to skilled tradesman and equipment purchases. As a result of the cost impact, projects are typically executed as designed, regardless of whether or not the design encompasses the best (or even feasible) solution.

Today, multidiscipline system integrators are required to properly design and integrate with various systems including communications networks, systems interoperability, and communications protocols. To add to this, the recent proliferation of information systems has increased project complexity. The expectation that information is available from any and all systems has become the norm. Even simple mechanical systems are expected to provide system-level integration capabilities.

Unfortunately, these critical data systems are typically not well understood by traditional engineering disciplines, and designers must consider and coordinate many aspects of system integration, such as protocols, security, bandwidth, scalability, information storage, and redundancy, to ensure project success. Additionally, electrical and process engineers are typically ill-equipped to generate system integration specifications, so without the involvement of a system integrator early in the conceptual design phase, the produced specifications are either too vague to procure what is required or overly specific from relying on one partial vendor, which ends up eliminating vendor competition. In both cases, the issue is having professionals perform tasks outside of their expertise.

Therefore, using a system integrator to develop the project requirements, system design, and approach during the conceptual or preliminary design phase can drastically reduce project costs and risks and increase the likelihood of a successful project. During the project design, an integrator can apply expertise by leveraging legacy systems, performing a nonbiased analysis of product and architecture offerings, selecting solutions that decrease integration effort and increase sustainability, and determining if a common-off-the-shelf (COTS) product or a custom application should be developed.

Integrate design early

The period before the procurement phase is crucial, and due diligence during the design process helps ensure decisions are based on unbiased, vendor-neutral engineering principles instead of procurement policies. Focusing on integrating information systems using best practices and open protocols generates reliable and actionable information tailored to meet the individual customer needs. Selecting a platform that adapts to the customer’s existing process and business practices has proven to be far more successful than requiring the customer to adjust business practices to match the platform.

Post-mortem project reviews reveal that unsuccessful A&E projects often possess similar characteristics, including poorly written scope documents, numerous scope changes, and undefined customer expectations. In some cases, the technical solution does not work as designed—often a direct consequence of the system integrator’s lack of influence during the conceptual design phase. In extreme cases, reviews have shown that a detailed design was not completed because of a lack of system integration knowledge, coupled with time and budget constraints. Furthermore, the absence of a well-defined scope of work often leads to schedule slippage and loss of customer confidence.

In certain instances, customers select a specific product based solely on their “ownership” stake in the product company and regardless of its capability to provide a solution. As a result, it is necessary to create several workarounds and patches during the project implementation for the platform to satisfy customer requirements. This decision can result in subpar system performance with limited system expandability or planned future enhancements. However, before the platform is deployed throughout the enterprise, the system integrator can work with the customer to perform a thorough design analysis, which can result in a design change with a custom interface instead of the original COTS hardware platform. If this is the case, the customer can invest in system enhancements and upgrades, rather than in legacy software costs and platforms.

What to expect

System integrators are tasked with creating a design that matches a customer’s budget and requirements. To achieve this goal, it is necessary to not only evaluate the project at hand, but also analyze the customer’s legacy systems and consider possible future enhancements. By leveraging an enterprise-wide viewpoint, an integrator can add more value in the overall design, delivering results that can improve the customer’s profit, growth, and corporate reputation.

The following are some primary system integrator tasks executed throughout the typical project lifecycle:

Requirements analysis

The requirements analysis phase enables a team to accurately determine the current and future customer requirements of the project. Tasks during this phase include:

  • Current system architecture – Examine the existing network infrastructure, data pathways, and procedures
  • Customer requirements – Identify the current system deficiencies and detail the customer requirements with regard to the existing system
  • Interface coordination – Determine the system interfaces, including current and available hardware interfaces and protocols to the system devices
  • Identify project risks – Document project integration risks with mitigation plans
  • Areas to be addressed – Detail the software, hardware, fieldbus input/output, interface descriptions and approaches, data table layouts, sequence of operations, and graphical user interface concept screens. 

First 30% design

Once the requirements are formalized, the system integrator creates a 30% design that outlines the overall system design for the project. This allows the customer an opportunity to review the initial design with the integrator. As illustrated in the project cost influence curve, this phase of the project lets the customer make major changes to the overall design with minimal cost impact. The 30% design should include the following information:

  • System architecture – Provide a detailed system architecture, including the recommended network infrastructure and system components. The component list should include existing and new items such as the programmable logic controller, server, database, and field devices.
  • Software platform – Perform a pros and cons analysis, centered on the requirements, to determine which platform to develop and deploy applications. Then, from this information, the end customer can select the best platform option based on price, ease of integration into legacy systems, and future expandability.
  • System applications – Outline the applications required to perform the project.
  • Functional demonstration – Perform a functional demonstration of proposed concepts, when appropriate, before a final design is completed.

Final 100% design

After the 30% design and functional demonstration are accepted by the customer, the integrator completes the 100% detailed system design. Once this is reviewed and accepted by the customer, project approval and implementation can commence.

System integration

From a system integrator perspective, it’s easy to understand why adding an integration discipline lead during the design phase is a necessity for executing large A&E and design-build projects. However, the approach has yet to be adopted as commonplace throughout the industry. This process seems simple, but it’s often overlooked, resulting in larger costs and higher rates of unsuccessful project implementation. As information systems continue to increase in complexity, adapting to a system integration-oriented design approach will become even more essential to a project’s success. Therefore, for each design project, a proper requirements analysis and design reviews should be conducted and performed. System integration leads to clearer, sensible scopes of work and helps ensure successful project implementation by reducing project costs and risk, as compared to the traditional approach. A system integrator’s early involvement in project design can help ensure high-quality projects that satisfy each customer’s unique requirements.

Todd Williams is a vice president for the System Integration and Controls team at SAIC. He leads a team with an exceptional combination of system integration and controls expertise that helps clients operate and streamline their facilities through the use of technology. He regularly works with clients to self-perform critical system integration and controls work as part of SAIC DesignBuild projects or as stand-alone projects. Williams is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) who has managed facility and production system projects for several Fortune 500 clients. He earned his MBA from Baker College and his BS in electrical engineering from the University of Cincinnati. He has led the system integration for several marquee SAIC DesignBuild projects. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

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