Automation World caught up with Jeff Miller, chairman of the best practices committee, Control System Integrators Association (CSIA, www.controlsys.org), in May as his committee was putting the finishing touches on the Best Practices manual, Version 4. This association of industrial automation professionals is on the front lines of automation system design and implementation challenges such as wireless communications, industrial Ethernet and cybersecurity. Individually, they’re often called in when engineers need an expert set of hands to upgrade control systems or develop user interfaces; collectively, these small and not-so-small integrators provide $1 billion worth of automation services every year. This new manual outlines procedures to become a certified member of this elite group. Miller discusses some of the changes from Version 3 of the manual, and, in general, challenges system integrators face.
Automation World: What is the CSIA Best Practices manual?
Jeff Miller: The manual is actually a collection of best business practices developed over years by control system integrators just like myself. All of the [contributing] companies are members of CSIA, and we’ve been successful in the field of systems integration. The document covers general management, human resources, marketing, business development, financial management, project management, system development lifecycle, supporting activities, quality assurance, and recently we’ve added in service and support.
The goal of CSIA and the best practices committee is to refresh this document every four years. The purpose of the Version 4 update is to add clarity to multiple sections. Section 3, which is about marketing, business development and sales management, received probably the biggest of the rework. We added in some sales management best practices, and we made a few significant updates to risk management.
AW: What’s new in the system integrator landscape? What challenges and opportunities do you see?
Miller: I think in the technology environment that the client and system integrator work in everyday, we’re going to continue to see change at a more rapid pace, even more than in the past. Many of our clients’ control systems are becoming obsolete. A lot of the control hardware vendors no longer support either the hardware or the software platforms. Going forward, clients will have to do something with those old systems, and that means either a large engineering staff or a systems integrator to build that smooth transition plan from where they are today.
Also, I really feel like the controls integrator is going to be one of the key players in that integration between the enterprise and control level. If you look at how much data is being housed out there in the enterprise planning systems, we need to make sure that we get all of that information down to the control layer and take out as much of the human interaction as needed to make sure that you’re error proofing and you’re continuing to increase your production.
We’re also seeing quite a lot more network control devices—things like wireless Ethernet, and just Ethernet I/O in general. So control engineers really have to be involved more in that security layer. That’s been a big change for a lot of us as integrators. We used to just be control engineers and now we have to be network engineers as well.
For integrator companies, keeping your engineers trained and up-to-speed on technology continues to go in leaps and bounds. The software changes almost once or twice a year, so you have to continue to train your engineers on new things they need to know. So having a great way to get onboard and get your team up to speed is a big deal. At Interstates Control Systems (www.interstates.com), we really focus on building an onboarding plan. We’ve been able to decrease the time needed to get our engineers billable, from somewhere between 90 to 180 days in the old ‘sink or swim’ method, to now sometimes less than 30 days. So that’s been a huge thing for us. There’s a reason why training is in the best practices manual, but you need to apply it well.
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AW: As suppliers trim their support departments, have you seen clients turn to you for more services and support?
Miller: The service and support realm has really become a big deal for a lot of system integrators. So, again, we added a section for service and support in the best practices manual, version 4. But looming on the horizon are more best practices around system security, and auditing of security and control systems. We’ve started hiring more IT-focused people and doing network security audits. That’s getting to be a big piece of our business. I think we’ll have to have to start adding some more things to the best practices manual to cover that.
>> For the expanded version of this interview, visit bit.ly/awpod038 to listen to the podcast.
Jeff Miller is the director of Automation Services at Interstates Control Systems, Inc. (www.interstates.com). He has been with the company for 13 years and has been part of the Control System Integrators Association’s (CSIA) Executive Council for three years. Interstates Control Systems provides turnkey electrical engineering, construction, instrumentation, and control systems solutions to industrial and commercial clients. For more information on how to become CSIA certified, visit www.controlsys.org/certmemberprog.php