Toward Successful System Integration

A job well begun is half done, according to the old truism.

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When working with a control system integrator, a comprehensive request for proposal (RFP)—one that establishes a clear understanding of your needs and expectations—is the way to begin a job well. Creating a solid RFP compels all stakeholders to reach consensus on your company's specific needs and the outcome you desire. This is time well spent, because it will improve the quality of the responses and reduce later misunderstandings, change orders and renegotiations. The RFP also keeps your team on course when evaluating proposals from different integrators.
  
A comprehensive RFP will encompass the following eight elements: project overview; scope of work; capabilities; exceptions; cost and rates; commercial considerations; documentation; and ownership.

The project overview is the integrator's opportunity to make a good first impression. Read this section carefully to ensure that the integrator fully understands your goals. Overall project objectives/goals, operational overview, project schedule milestones and system performance requirements must be included.

A proposal without a well-defined scope of work and listing of deliverables is a disaster in the making. This is the meat of the document—the services and deliverables you will be holding the integrator accountable for. Both the RFP and the resulting proposal should be crystal clear about the system integration services to be provided. These typically include consulting, project management, specifications, design and documentation, software development, documentation and testing, procurement, panel fabrication and testing, construction and installation, commissioning, training and ongoing support. The proposal also should specify the deliverables, i.e., equipment and application programs.

This is the integrator's opportunity to demonstrate that it has the right combination of talent and technology to meet your needs.  The integrator should impress you with the depth on its bench. Look for professional licenses and certifications, continuing education of staff, knowledge of regulations and compliance, and software certifications that you need to ensure a quality project and compliance with regulations.

The system integrator may have valid reasons for taking exceptions to your RFP. For example, the integrator may be able to recommend new technology or products that will result in greater energy efficiency or lower maintenance. This is the type of forward thinking you want from a system integrator.

Consider many options

It may be tempting to look at the cost and rates section first, but make sure that you take into account the capabilities of the firm and the exceptions to the RFP. While price is always a consideration, it should never be the only consideration; the lowest price up front is not always the best long-term value. Meanwhile, establishing the ground rules for how you and the integrator will do business together will reduce the financial and legal risk for both parties. Carefully review the integrator's standard terms and conditions, policies and procedures, standard invoicing terms, service rates, insurance coverage, consequential damage and dispute resolution language, and warranty.

Design and software documentation is the ultimate record of the contract's deliverables. Make sure that the final documentation will include all modifications, revisions and as-built documentation. The system integrator should have a standard policy to verify that the most current editions have been transmitted and received. One commercial issue that merits special review is the ownership of application software. Are works for hire the property of the client or integrator? If the integrator plans to maintain ownership, terms should clearly state licensing arrangements.

After you have evaluated the proposals, invite the top three control system integrator (CSI) firms to present their proposals in person. A face-to-face meeting with the CSI is your opportunity to clarify your questions and learn more about the firm's working style, culture and bench depth.

Robert Lowe, execdir@controlsys.org, is the Executive Director of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA).

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