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A detailed approach to an SI partnership

Find the right system integrator, and then define the project scope to make the project a success.

By Tim Roberts, AutomationDirect April 12, 2017

Whether new or retrofitted with a new controller, a machine must be properly automated to be robust and supportable on the factory floor. Courtesy: AutomationDirect/Delta Technology, Phoenix, Ariz.Many industrial automation projects can’t be completed with internal resources due to time and other constraints. In these instances, many plants and facilities rely on outside services in the form of a system integrator (SI). Although these projects are subbed out to integrators, plant personnel need to be intimately involved every step of the way.

Proper system integration ties all the automation pieces together, ensuring plant technicians and the maintenance department can support the system after the project is completed.

Key decisions

Internal resource availability and size of a project often determine the need for an SI. Many companies have minimal engineering resources available. If proper personnel are on staff, they are often too busy working on multiple projects to support a new design in addition to their daily duties required to keep the plant or facility running. This is especially the case on larger, complex projects where an SI is often used. The use of an SI in these cases helps ensure the expertise and resources are available for successful execution of the project.

Some end users provide a detailed scope of work to an SI, while others don’t know where to start. For those confused regarding the scope of work, the SI can be required to provide one based on discussions with the end user.

Regardless of who creates the scope of work, it must be well-defined and should include all facets of the project’s deliverables, along with a schedule. Elements of a scope of work should include functional requirements, such as mechanical and electrical design, controls programming (PLC, SCADA/HMI, drives, etc.), panel assembly/fabrication and associated documentation (printed and electronic copies of drawings, system operator manual, training and vendor manuals, etc.). The scope of work also should include operational requirements such as cycle time, accuracy, repeatability, specific machine control variables, features and functions.

A single point of contact at the SI should also be identified, and this person will interface with his end user counterpart. The end user point person should understand the technical aspects of the user’s system/machine, and provide the SI with any information or internal personnel needed to complete the project. In addition, the end user point person should communicate regularly with the SI, at least weekly, to manage the project schedule.

Meeting your requirements

Along with any legal or license requirements, the SI must have a baseline understanding of the project application, along with standard engineering and controls practices. An end user should look for an SI with expertise that will facilitate a long-term relationship because the SI will often be asked to provide related services in the future.

Depending on the application, machine and/or process control services may be needed. Often an SI is an expert in one or the other. Machine control is a different world from process control. A discrete manufacturing machine with high digital I/O count, motion control, vision systems and barcode readers often requires different skills than temperature control and other analog and PID control methods for batch and continuous processes. Hybrid plants, such as food and beverage production and packaging, often have elements of both machine and process control.

A machine SI is an expert in step sequences and part tracking, among other things, which may not be the best control method for various processes. The machine control expert may not be able to understand P&ID drawings defining a process. At the same time, a process control expert may not understand how to best create a PLC program for machine control, and may try to turn it in to a batch control application that may be difficult to understand and support.

Contacting the hardware supplier is a good way to connect with a systems integration program resource. Courtesy: AutomationDirectAn SI must also be familiar with the industry and its related specifications and requirements; fortunately, there is overlap between industries. For example, an SI familiar with machines used in the automotive industry should be well suited to design and program automated equipment for an agricultural machine. Programming a pick-and-place machine is a similar task no matter the industry.

Some industries have more specialized requirements. Moving from automotive parts manufacturing machines to food processing facilities may be a big jump for an SI. There are many food safety specifications and a lot more stainless steel and washdown requirements involved that are important from a design, manufacture and build standpoint. A large SI company may be a jack-of-all-trades, but many of the expert and desirable SI firms don’t stray far from their core area of expertise.

Selecting a partner SI

Finding an SI meeting all the unique requirements of an end user’s plant or facility can be challenging, but it is worth the effort. A good starting point is at a specific machine, system or piece of equipment on the plant floor. An OEM nameplate, PLC manufacturer and even a business card taped to the inside of a control cabinet can help in the search.

Many SIs are found by referral. An SI does a great job on a project and word-of-mouth is often his or her only marketing method, so asking around or working with a PLC manufacturer’s SI program can provide good search results. Consulting personnel with industry/market experience, inside or outside a company, is also helpful. Finding qualified SIs by looking for referrals from within the end user organization can naturally filter in the company’s unique requirements for an SI.

An SI’s website is usually a good source of preliminary information, as is directly asking the SI for certifications/licenses, documentation and customer references. There no substitute for detailed discussions with an SI, first by email or phone, and then face-to-face. It is important to take the time to interview an SI as it likely the start of a long-term relationship, which should be the goal. First impressions can help narrow the field, but detailed questions should be asked to determine the final selection.

Some SIs are more cooperative and patient than others. While that may be just the personality of the SI’s engineer or sales person, it can indicate the SI will be easier to work with. End users should look for an SI that asks the right questions to clarify a project or application, which is a good characteristic for any service provider.

A good SI will interview the end user to determine if the project is a good fit for them as well. Smart SIs are looking for long-term business relationships that are in their wheelhouse where they can solve problems and have their name remembered and their phone ringing when the next project comes around.

Once an SI is chosen, it is important to build a relationship with them based on trust and understanding. The more an SI knows about an end user and the project the better, as this improves his or her understanding and helps ensure successful project completion.

Win-win management

Working with a suitable SI can often help ensure the success of a project. Courtesy: AutomationDirectIt’s important for the end user to push an SI to keep a project on time and under budget while still meeting their performance requirements. A sit-down with an SI where they walk the end user through their planned schedule, budget and check-points is a must.

An SI should become a partner in managing a project, because they have just as much motivation to ensure the project’s success as the end user does. To the extent that both parties have that view, an SI can be self-managing. However, problems will likely arise. When they do, the end user should contact the SI immediately. It cannot be assumed that a problem will be corrected down the road, or will somehow work itself out without prompt and proper attention.

The best way to stay on schedule and avoid problems is to stay in touch on a regular basis. Specific milestones should be checked to confirm the SI is on track and understands the requirements. Preliminary, interim and final design reviews will help ensure a properly engineered system that meets functional and operational requirements. It will also ensure long-lead items are ordered and delivered on schedule. Other important reviews include an integration review and acceptance testing review, and both should be completed before anything is built or tested.

Time spent identifying the proper SI and defining the scope of work is well spent and will go a long way to making sure requirements are met while keeping the project on time and within budget. Checking off completion of defined requirements and deliverables on a regular basis keeps the project manageable, as opposed to letting significant periods of time elapse without verifying progress.

In the final analysis, an integration project can be an excellent experience for both the end user and the SI. At the completion of a project, it’s great when the end user is pleased and the SI is looking forward to future opportunities.

Tim Roberts is program manager for the SI Direct systems integration program at AutomationDirect.