How to Select a Control Systems Integrator | Automation.com

How to Select a Control Systems Integrator

March 252015
How to Select a Control Systems Integrator

By Patrick Supanich, Contributor

This article was originally published in the 2014 Fall/Winter Edition of PULSE.

Introduction

As an end user, you must rely more and more on outside engineering services for your automation needs.  Choosing a services partner can be a high-risk decision for your company and, frankly, your career. The days of hiring a Control Systems Integrator (CSI) for some extra support are giving way to entire projects being managed and executed by your CSI.  If it fails, the project fails--plain and simple.

Not all CSIs are created equal

Eskimos have 50 words for snow.  We have only one set of words to identify Control Systems Integrators.  I do not propose we add new ones; however, there are as many variations in CSIs as there are types of snow. You must find the CSI that fits your organization’s needs and has true depth of talent in your area of need.

Size does not guarantee results

Do not assume that an integrator with 250+ engineers will deliver your project more reliably than one with 10 engineers, or even fewer.  Some of the integrators you evaluate may be small. With a good, but small, integrator, the owner will likely be your project manager, or he/she may do the high-level design and team mentoring.  There will be no intercompany conflicts regarding which project receives what resources. The overhead will be low, while the commitment of all of the team members to deliver quality service will be high.  In my past career, I founded and built an office for a large integrator. The office was small, but we were technically strong and dedicated to our clients. Our small team managed and delivered millions of dollars of projects on time and on budget for large Fortune 500 clients.  We were often called to save projects for large offices who underestimated the difficulty of the projects.

Unfortunately, many small integrators don't deliver excellence. These under-deliverers have often given the industry a bad name.  Large or small, it’s the dedication to customer satisfaction and the team’s skills that are important.

Location does matter

You need your CSI partner to be near you geographically, in some form, based on the need.  It may only be a small two- or three-person group that serves the core local needs, but it needs to exist. Many great tools are available now to provide remote support; these tools are worth their weight in gold.  However, nothing beats having a person physically present. The expense of flying in a resource every time there is a need is impractical. If you do find an integrator you like, but it doesn’t have a physical presence where you need it, ask if they are willing to open an office in your area. This is how many integrators expand; it just takes willingness on your part to be flexible.

Behind the curtain

When evaluating an integrator, what is behind the curtain is what matters.  It’s not the glossy brochures or the polished PowerPoint presentation.  It’s the culture, the people, and the internal processes that truly determine the quality of a CSI.  These are just some of the questions you will want to ask:

  • What is the leadership like?
  • Are they passionate about their company and its mission?
  • Are they engaged in projects?
  • Do they have strong project-based accounting in place?
  • Do they have a project execution methodology?
  • Do they use common software development tools?
  • Do they have a software standard focused on a well-defined structure, modular in nature with a focus on maintainability, diagnostics, and reuse?
  • What is their employee retention like?
  • Are they financially sound?

An integrator that is doing the right things will be happy to showcase them; provide a forum for this. 

Instead of requiring an integrator to complete a 20-page questionnaire, opt for a face-to-face conversation. This will allow both parties to evaluate each other.  It’s not much different than an interview to hire an employee.  Would you ever hire an employee without an extensive face-to-face interview and evaluation?  No way!  Why not have the same process when hiring a CSI?  A CSI will possibly be more critical to your success than a single employee.  You should consider going to the CSI’s office for the meeting, but do not hold the facility against the CSI.  It may just be a bunch of cubicles, some with unoccupied desks.  In the integrator’s office, empty desks can be a good thing--it means they are working on other projects.

So, what should you be looking for?  Here are some suggestions:

Understand the project management structure

Does it have a person or people responsible for managing its projects?  Does its project management structure align well with your needs?  Understand that project management is a set of tasks and procedures designed around delivering a defined scope within a specific timeline and budget.  All projects, no matter their size, need project management.  However, depending on the size of your project, you may not need a full-time project manager.  Let the project size determine the need. For small projects, your project manager might be the engineer who implements the project. Look for a CSI that allows this flexible project management model. You can avoid unnecessary overhead but still receive the benefits of solid project management.

What is its project execution methodology?

Does your CSI have a well-defined process for executing projects?  Is it documented?  How closely does it adhere to it? Does the process have flexibility built in that allows it to remain efficient for any size project?  Does it require sign-offs at key milestones? (Editor’s note: This is a good thing that holds you accountable.)  Does it perform internal peer-to-peer technical reviews of the software?  Does it perform software acceptance testing prior to going onsite?

Check into its financial solvency

It is unlikely that any CSI will share every detail from its accounting book with you, but you should certainly run a credit check on the company.  You should also speak with its vendors about the timeliness of its payments.  At the same time, remember that in today’s economy, often small companies have become like banks for the large companies.  If your CSI has late vendor payments, it might be because companies are slow to pay the CSI. 

Are they CSIA Certified or at least moving towards it?

CSIA or Control Systems Integrators Association is an organization founded in 1994 with the goal of advancing the profession to “enable industries everywhere to have access to low-risk, safe and successful applications of automation technology by advancing the business practices of the system integration industry.“ 

CSIA is an ISO 9000-like quality control organization focused on the system integration community. Certified members must pass an external audit around all aspects of the integration business. This audit covers areas of General Management, Human Resources, Marketing, Business Development, Sales and Opportunity Management, Financial, Project Management, System Development Lifecycle, Quality Assurance and Service and Support. Achieving certification is not an easy task. The beauty of this certification is its designed around the automation industry, so it is very relevant. 

I have had the pleasure of attending CSIA Executive Conference a number of times. CSIA is an very unique organization focused on its mission. The  companies that attend are often the best in breed in our industry. 

This certification is not a “guarantee” in itself, but it’s also not a marketing gimmick. The System Integrators that get certified do it because they recognize that the standard is a template on how to run a successful business in this industry. Be sure to ask about this when making your selection and make it a real factor in your decision.

Understand its accounting tools and methods

Does the CSI have a system for project-level accounting?  Every CSI that wants to stay on good terms with the IRS has financial accounting. The real question is whether it monitors individual project financials.  You might be surprised to discover the number of integrators that could not tell you whether an individual project was profitable. A solid job management system will track all project costs, including labor hours charged to the project, materials, travel, etc.  The CSI’s accounting system should be able to do this in a daily snapshot.  The project manager should use this tool to plan the project, monitor its health, and, with feedback from the team, predict where it will end up.

Understand CSI’s core product - its people

The core of every CSI is the knowledge, talent, and dedication of its people.  A CSI may possess all of the proper financial monitoring systems, human resources procedures, project management structures, and sales and marketing prowess,  but an integrator with a strong, dedicated team that is technically aligned with your needs will easily outperform others.  This does not mean that those other aspects are not important. The core foundation (people) comes first, and the other aspects can be steadily improved.

Try to understand how the CSI retains its core personnel and invests in them.  When you work in the consulting world, you are exposed to a diverse set of technologies and processes.  As a result, much of the training occurs on the job. The CSI should be able to present examples about how it develops its people. Look for safety training or other technical training that coincides with project application.  Most importantly, look for some form of a mentoring program where junior and senior engineers share knowledge. All of these activities help the CSI retain and further develop its core talent.

Ask your CSI about the educational makeup of the organization. Most CSIs are not comprised of 100% degreed engineers, let alone ones with professional engineering degrees. Your technical needs may not require the theoretical underpinnings of an engineering degree.  However, engineers typically provide the backbone of a CSI business.  Be wary of a CSI that does not have a healthy mix of educational makeup, unless its reputation is solid in your area of need.  One integrator I have familiarity with only hires the top talent from top-tier universities.  He has perfected the ability to attract this talent, and it has made his organization a technical powerhouse. He takes on his clients’ intractable problems, and he and his team rarely fail to impress.  CSIs like this are a rarity, but many exist with a healthy mix of talent and educational background. Take the time to find one.

Know your technical needs

The industry has a hierarchy of technical complexity.  A complex, coordinated, precision motion system that requires proper motor sizing, backlash consideration, and complex virtual cams and phasing is different than a simple start/stop conveyor or HMI screen.  Boiler controls are different than filling a mix tank or performing a simple batch sequence.  Implementing a full corporate-wide MES infrastructure is different than a SCADA point solution. You need to understand the complexity of your systems and your needs. And, you need to be comfortable that your integrator understands your needs and can deliver the proper solution. You also need to know when not to be overly concerned if your CSI lacks specific experience. Lacking skills in a particular PLC controller or HMI should not be a concern unless your project is large with little or no ramp-up time.  However, if the CSI lacks specific process knowledge, fundamental theory, or understanding of whole new technology systems (such as DCS vs. PLC), that is cause for concern. You should be able to challenge your integrator and take calculated risks with it. But, if fundamental experience is lacking, a careful evaluation of the risk is in order.

First, determine the scale of your needs. Often, specialty skills like motion control might come from a small group or office. This need may contradict other needs, such as the requirement for a large staff with a diverse geographical presence or financial capacity to take on large projects.  Hire for the need, and don't let a goal to reduce the number of vendors trump your ability to hire the correct talent. Manufacturers that do it correctly often have both local relationships with niche solution providers and national relationships with large integrators.

Programming methodologies

Ask the CSI to present its programming methodologies to you.  Look for a common approach to programming that is shared by the organization. The best companies will have this methodology documented and have a formal training and mentoring program around it. They will also have incorporated a strict adherence to the standard into the technical project reviews. A solid standard will exemplify a modular-based approach to programming geared toward component reuse and improvement throughout the organization. It may even have its own development environment outside of the particular vendor’s technology.

Moving forward - a solid partner today could fail you tomorrow

All businesses go through ups and downs. By no means should you abandon your partnership at the first signs of issues; however, even if you develop a long-standing relationship built on trust and project success, you cannot run on autopilot. While not all-encompassing, the following are some typical factors to monitor.

To help predict potential issues, watch for changes in the key management, especially those who have been integral in growing the organization. Watch for loss of key employees--those familiar faces you see at your facilities. Do periodic credit monitoring. Watch for changes in its business focus. You may have been at the core of its business strategy when you started the relationship, but now you may be less significant. Has the integrator outgrown you or vice versa?

Some of the events that could disrupt the integrator’s model and execution are:

Step growth

All companies need to grow. Some people say, “If you are not growing, then you are dying.” Growth can be steady and low-risk, and the supporting business will hold up. The risk comes when the business model changes, or when, to get to the next level, the integrator steps out of its comfort zone and takes on more than it can handle.  It’s akin to starting a new business. Often the CSI moves from a customer intimacy model to a large bid-spec project model. Strong organizations that have steadily grown over time can be bled dry by one large-scale project that goes poorly. The bid-spec world is much more cutthroat. Partnerships and ethics do not hold up. The inexperienced CSI is often at the losing end of these situations.

Outside influences

Pay particular attention when private equity firms or large holding companies acquire or buy a significant stake in the CSI. These can be disruptive events for a CSI. Though not all outcomes are bad, they all cause change. The CSI's fundamental core is its people. Some people who work for the integrator often do so because they like the culture of the organization. They like the people they work with/for. They like the clients they serve. Often, when these acquisitions or investments occur, they cause a loss of the cultural identity of the organization. The CSI starts to lose key people, and the result is a vicious cycle of decline.

The growth desired by an equity firm requires aggressive sales and marketing. These efforts often lead to projects that the CSI can’t deliver because it lacks the required experience or resources. Failure occurs. People leave. Natural growth stalls. The next-year projections need to make up the difference. These extra demands on staff to produce growth lead to burnout, resulting in an avalanche of resignations.

Another red flag is when a CSI looks for a step change in growth. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this desire, often the time frames are unrealistic, which is a big risk. Let’s face it--CSIs are not selling widgets. In the integration world, healthy growth comes from successfully building expertise project by project, key hire by key hire, then constant refinement of business processes and tools.

Conclusion

This article by no means covers every consideration for selecting a CSI, but it’s a good start. If you spend the time to implement a robust CSI selection process, you will improve your chances of long-term success. A long-term partnership with a capable CSI is essential for the success of any manufacturing organization - large or small. If you select poorly, it will cost you dearly in the long run, and potentially far more time and money than you might have saved in a cost-centered selection process. Finally, if you do not monitor and nurture your CSI partnership, you may be blindsided by unexpected failure.

About the Author

Patrick Supanich is a BSEE graduate of Michigan Technological University. He chose an automation career after graduation, when he went to work for 3M Company as a Systems Engineer. After 6 years at 3M, Patrick took a year-long sabbatical to travel the world. Upon his return, he founded and built a successful systems integration office for Tegron. After 8 years with Tegron, Patrick joined Automation.com and Automationtechies. At Automation.com he served as the Vice President of Sales and Operations. After the acquisition of Automation.com by ISA in late 2014, Pat remained with Automationtechies, a full-service recruiting and contract staffing company focused on automation professionals. In this role he balances his time between automation consulting, recruiting and business operations.

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