Choosing the right system integrator: 3 categories of needs

While finding an integrator that can meet project specifications is important, finding an integrator that you are compatible with is equally as important. Heed these 3 categories of needs.


Controls and IT Integration, Control EngineeringWhat criteria should be used for selecting a system integrator? We’ve all heard the standard answers such as the integrator should be within a certain distance of the plant. They should have a clean facility meeting this standard and that requirement. They should specialize in the PLC that standard at the plant. They should follow the same wiring practices as the customer. You should have the scope of the project well defined before issuing the purchase order, etcetera.

But all of these concentrate on the making sure the nuts and bolts of the end product are what you desire. I have seen nightmare systems where the customer has all the components they desired, they are put together right, but the system never works right because the customer / integrator relationship just has the wrong chemistry.

Choosing the right systems integrator is very dependent on what the customer’s needs are. Having been an end user, then an OEM, and now helping others get started in the industry, I have found that matching the customer’s needs and expectations with the systems integrator’s specialties and features has much to do with whether the relationship is successful or not.

Ensure the system integrator’s workload allows personnel to be selective with which customers they choose, taking into account the need for amazing integrator-customer chemistry. It’s bad chemistry when system integrator staff members cringe when receiving a phone call from a particular customer, or if a customer cringes when the system integrator walks through the plant’s doorway.

Classifying customer needs

Customer needs can be classified into three basic categories. The customer who wants a functional system deliver and:

1. Have their own control personnel to support equipment and does not want any post-installation support. Their manufacturing practices may be so customized or proprietary that they prefer to keep as much of a project as possible in house. They may have safety or security concerns that discourage use of outside contractors.

2. Have their own control personnel to support equipment most of the time, and knows that from time to time they will need additional support from an outside integrator. They can usually support the day-to-day operations of systems but lack resources to do more complicated troubleshooting or system upgrades.

3. Have little or no in house personnel for supporting their systems and rely almost exclusively on outside help for troubleshooting. They will have very limited control personnel to troubleshoot problems. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In a plant that runs well and is under a lean philosophy, many times it is more cost effective to bring someone in for occasional troubleshooting, as opposed to paying someone full time, training them, and keeping up software licenses.

3 types of system integrators

System integrators also can be divided into three types.

1. The integrator that prefers only to build new systems, deliver them, and move on to the next project. They can build custom or mass produced systems. Some may also install them and offer limited post-installation support.

2. The integrator that builds some systems and can support their systems and perhaps others. They will usually be less into mass-produced systems and more into custom applications.

3. The integrator who specializes in on site troubleshooting and modifications of existing systems. They may build a limited amount of control systems, but they are more into the service industry than manufacturing systems.

When someone contacts a system integrator, and there’s no bandwidth on staff to handle the project, the work may be referred to another integrator in the area. In that case, the customer may not be satisfied even if the recommended system integrator is competent to do the job.

It’s better when the system integrator asks the customer for details about the project and about their organization. Most customers are very receptive to provide that information and are much more likely to be satisfied with the match.

In addition to matching the categories mentioned, those seeking a system integrator should ask the following questions.

  • How do I get a quote from them? Is there a clear price? Do they get the quote back to me in a timely order? Do they back their product or service with a warranty? In addition to a warranty do you feel that they will stand behind their product or service if problems do arise?
  • What is the best way to reach them? Is it convenient to me?
  • Do I feel comfortable and that I can trust them?
  • Can they handle the typical problems we have had in the past?
  • Do their values match our values?

In short, while finding an integrator that can provide you all the nuts and bolts to your specifications is important, finding an integrator with whom you are compatible is equally important.

- Tim Wilborne is the owner of TW Controls LLC, a small industrial automation company in Roanoke, Va. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager CFE Media, Control Engineering, Plant Engineering, and Consulting-Specifying Engineer. Reach Hoske at 

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