Using a system integrator vs. doing it yourself

At our house, carpentry projects are better left to the professionals. I often joke that for plumbing projects, I have a rule that the hardware store must remain open for four hours after beginning the project, and I have to have at least a half-tank of gasoline in the truck. Even so, the project has to be simple and the risk has to be minimal.


At our house, carpentry projects are better left to the professionals. I often joke that for plumbing projects, I have a rule that the hardware store must remain open for four hours after beginning the project, and I have to have at least a half-tank of gasoline in the truck. Even so, the project has to be simple and the risk has to be minimal. My comfort zone goes up considerably for mechanical or electrical projects, but there is still the matter of the time allocation %%MDASSML%% how large is the project and how urgent is the need?

The same economic principles can be applied to the complexity and urgency of industrial automation projects. For a project with potential for substantial return or savings, the cost of the systems integration (SI) resource may be small compared to the lost opportunity associated with waiting or delays caused by internal schedule conflicts.

For large and/or complex projects, a professional SI company is probably a wise choice. A quality systems integration firm will have a team of full-time people skilled in the technology and the structured project methodology necessary for implementing the project.

For the purpose of this article, the reference to a professional SI organization is intended to mean a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA %%MDASSML%% ). CSIA certified members must pass a rigorous audit process, which is performed by a third-party auditor and measures a company’s performance against criteria in seven business areas to prove the SI is a technically proficient and financially stable company. To maintain certification, these firms must undergo an audit every three years. The population of CSIA certified integration companies is growing year by year.

Why not do-it-yourself (DIY)?

In evaluating the implementation of a project, many users might look at their maintenance team as a potential source of technical talent and think, “After all, how difficult can this really be?”

Most maintenance departments aren’t structured to be a design/development group. Interruptions happen frequently in these departments, which results in a break in the problem-solving thought process and can negatively affect the structure, continuity and long-term maintainability of an integration project. Additionally, the level of documentation delivered with the project often suffers in DIY projects. Good documentation is valuable in the support and maintenance of a project over its lifecycle.

Choosing a qualified SI

Most system integrators %%MDASSML%% especially the more experienced ones %%MDASSML%% will have an internal manual of best practices, along with a set of standard procedures for programming and design that will be found in their quality manual. They will also have an internal training program and mentoring plan. Projects that are delivered without a proper plan %%MDASSML%% a formalized document defining the project’s objectives and deliverables %%MDASSML%% tend to be more fragmented and don’t tend to run as trouble-free as a project where those items are fundamental elements of a company’s standard project methodology.

A qualified SI typically uses a more formal project management structure than an internal resource that occasionally delivers an integration project might use. A formal project methodology helps a professional integrator to identify the activities, milestones and resource loading required to keep the project schedule on track.

Some owners have dedicated internal control integration departments that are structured to behave as an SI, serving their own organization as their client. These departments would be well advised to follow a set of standards and procedures such as those found within CSIA.

Long-term planning, support

Another point for consideration is the long-term support for the project. A professional SI delivers a project in accordance with its best practices and its standard quality procedures, whereas an owner’s internal technical resource uses whatever method seems best to them at the time. Should that internal resource happen to leave the company for any reason, then the ability of the owner to support that project has been weakened. In these cases, an SI using standards can provide more depth in support than the typical single internal resource.

A qualified SI can also be an excellent advisor mapping out an integration plan and architecture for a client’s larger plant or enterprise. Having a long-term strategy allows each project to be designed in such a way to be included in a larger integration plan. Once again, those organizations that undergo planning with a qualified SI firm benefit from good project documentation and design standards.

Cost of implementation

When evaluating the cost of a project, it is prudent for an organization to evaluate not only the cost of initial purchase and development, but also the costs associated with start-up, as well as the speed of start-up. The sooner a production line comes up to design production rate, the sooner that line is producing revenue (and at the faster rate). Good up-front planning is fundamental in delivering a project on time, within budget and with an accelerated start-up curve.

So, the availability of line production should be a consideration when considering the cost of an integration project. A loss of opportunity could also be considered a cost.

Minimizing risk

The overall risk is typically lower when using an SI. Professional systems integration firms work to stay current on the technology and train staff to deploy projects using design and development best practices.

Relying on structured design, programming standards and good documentation, qualified integrators can deliver a successful project on time and within budget. Factor in the improved production and long-term planning and support the integrator provides, and the total cost of ownership for the owner is likely also to be less than internal resources could provide.

A wealth of talent exists in all levels of industrial automation and integration, but we each tend to be better at our primary focus. In today’s competitive economic environment, it comes as no surprise that many owners trust a system integrator to guide them through the risk associated with automating their systems and processes. In the end, allowing an integrator to deliver large and/or complex projects saves time and money, and allows their internal staff to concentrate on the things they do best.

The CSIA maintains best practices and is independently audited in seven business management disciplines: general management; human resources; project management; quality management; financial management; business development; and technical management. For more information about CSIA or to find a CSIA certified integrator, go to .

Good up-front planning is fundamental in delivering a project on time, within budget and with an accelerated start-up curve.

Author Information

Ray Bachelor, PE is president and founder of Bachelor Controls Inc. (BCI). A CSIA certified member, BCI was named 2008 System Integrator of the Year by Control Engineering magazine.

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