How to Properly Select and Vet a Systems Integrator

July 11, 2013
The process of finding a qualified systems integrator for your automation project requires effort and attention to the details. Experience, expertise, staff capabilities and financial wherewithal are all crucial factors to consider in finding the right integrator partner.

1. Selection criteria. Search for a systems integrator who has a long list of successful projects in the areas you are looking for. Check out any references they provide and find out how long they have been in the field. They should also have a broad range of products they have worked with and have enough staff to handle all the various areas of a project. People who have done a lot of motion control may not have the expertise to handle a complex SCADA project.

2. Be suspicious of over-promises. If during negotiations and setting requirements, a system integrator continues saying, "No problem. That's easy. We can do all you want"... you can be sure that It will be a problem, it will not be so easy and It will be something that is more complicated than assumed. The integrator should prove that he understood your requirements, didn't under-estimate the project and that he has experience with similar projects. Be especially careful if you get a much lower price than expected or that others have quoted.

3. Familiarity with standards. Find out what partners the integrator works with since no one can do it alone. It's also important to see how an integrator manages a project and what their code library looks like. Do they follow S88 and S95 methodologies? They don't need to follow these to the letter, but if they don't have a methodology and aren't even aware of the standards, don't even consider them.

4. Comfort factor. In addition to reliability and professional capabilities, choose an integrator you feel comfortable with, who understands your process needs and has experience in the field. The integrator also needs to have a staff with expertise and domain knowledge in your business area.

5. Expertise. Focus on their knowledge, techniques and skills. Make sure they have full knowledge of system engineering, as well as sufficient experience to handle your project. A proven track record and references from the projects they have done are essential.

6. Current experience. Prior experience in your discipline is key to the selection of your Integrator. Experience keeps the integrator current on new technologies, new hardware and software. As a result of the recent recession, integrators are not as abundant as before, with many unable to survive the economic turmoil. Many integrators have reduced staff, minimized technology education opportunities and made other cutbacks. Take the time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of any integrator you consider to ensure that they are capable of delivering the system that you require.

7. Stay involved. Has your systems integrator done something similar before? Chances are the pool of talent isn't all that big. Can you allocate any resources to working with that integrator on a day-to-day basis? You will have to take ownership of the system, so you will need to know how to modify it and maintain it or you will be tied into a system that might need unallocated cash to make changes. Get involved at the zero level in the planning, simulation, detailed layout, software handling techniques and maintenance requirements as much as you possibly can in order to get the biggest possible benefits and to learn in excruciating detail how it all goes together.

8. Take a long-term view. Select an integrator with experience in similar systems, preferably of the same make. Tie payments to project milestones. Make sure his services will be available for upgrades and maintenance by signing a separate contract.

9. Problem-solvers. Choose an integrator who has experience in the tasks you need performed. They have probably already solved many of the problems you may face if you choose one whose experience is outside the necessary area of expertise.

10. Ask questions. Choosing a systems integrator is the hardest and easily the most overlooked part of an automation project. Ask questions about types of projects they've done, vertical preferences and size of projects. Have them include project details, such as were they on time and on or under budget, and what percentage of the time.

11. Experience has its limits. Be aware that most integrators have experience either in a vertical industry or with a certain type of project, such as PLC/HMI programming. Either way, they may lack the capabilities needed to do projects outside of that experience. Many HMI/DCS vendors have a list of endorsed or recommended systems integrators on their home page. This is a good place to start.

12. Smart isn't enough. Choose an integrator as you would choose an employee. Spend time, talk to references and know that while every firm out there enlists very smart engineers, you don't want them cutting their teeth on your project.

13. Professionalism counts. Make sure an integrator can confidently provide you with a project plan, with decision points, contingency plans and staffing that will meet your timeline and project goals.

14. Test the team. Verify the integrator's capabilities by giving a test to the personnel who will perform the work on your project. Make sure those people are listed in the contract, including fallback or substitute candidates.

15. Do they have business skills? Look beyond technology expertise or project experience to consider an integrator's commercial qualifications: Are they CSIA certified? Do they have insurance? How many years have they been in business?

16. Are they open? Select an integrator that is open to your requests and ideas. Beware of someone that constantly pushes back. If you hear the phrase "nobody does it like that" or "this is how everyone does it," you might want to consider another integrator that is more open minded. You are paying that integrator to get what you want and need -- not just what they are willing to build because it's easy or they "always do it that way". Yes, you hired them for their experience and would like their suggestions, but don't discount your own ideas just because this is your first time. Also allow for the ability to make some changes -- especially if your approach is new and unconventional. Be open for changes and tweaks as you go if it makes the end result easier to use and more flexible. You need to stay involved throughout the whole process. Don't pass up the learning opportunity!

Integrator source

An excellent source for information useful in selecting a systems integrator is the CSIA (Control System Integrators Association). You can search their membership by expertise, state, certification, etc., to find exactly the right fit for your automation project.

Do your homework

Extensive planning is complete, timelines and schedules are determined, budgets and ROI calculated and all the textbook preparations and considerations have been met. What could go wrong? Plenty! Always vet your system integrator. Get references, see a system designed and implemented by them in use, visit their factory and, most important, run credit checks and investigate their financial health. Nothing is more destructive than having an integrator run out of money before the project has been completed.

Detail the requirements

1. One of the most important factors in selecting a systems integrator is his willingness to develop a good project proposal. Avoid any integrator whose proposal is just one or two pages long.
2. Automation projects must have good system requirements from the customer, and the system integrator must list in his proposal what requirements will be met and what will not.
3. If the requirements and proposal terms are properly defined from the beginning, the result will be a project with no or minimum change orders.
4. Some systems integrators take advantage of a poorly written requirements document from a customer and present a very generic proposal, so the price might look attractive at the beginning. When the project is awarded, then the customer has to face a series of change orders because a requirement that might be obvious was not listed in the proposal. The customer ends up paying far more money for the project than originally estimated.
5. Establishing a good project requirement list is not only an essential customer task, but also requires the cooperation of the systems integrator.

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