For a while now, the buzz on the industrial street has been about modernizing or digitally transforming legacy systems in facilities. Many manufacturers have already started to move forward and reevaluate their processes and systems. Some have even begun using the new innovative technologies on the market to improve their operational efficiency and performance. For others, however, taking that first step to modernization is easier said than done – and for good reason.
No matter the size, upgrade or migration projects can be extremely complex, and the risks can be high. Navigating the best path forward toward a new optimized automation system solution often requires additional resources in the form of a third-party partner like a systems integrator (SI) or automation solutions provider. The best choice largely depends on who can meet all the necessary requirements in the facility.
All SIs have their strengths and weaknesses. Some may have extensive knowledge on one brand of automation products and a single industry but limited or no knowledge outside of those specific automation products or said industry. While others might have experience with many automation platforms and/or industries, but they focus on panel design and system programming with only limited experience in actually integrating solutions into an existing production environment, construction feasibility, and more.
So, what should you look for in an SI? Ideally, it is best to engage a qualified automation partner who has applied, unbiased platform-agnostic process control experience working across a wide range of manufacturing processes and automation technologies in all phases of the automation lifecycle. A trusted partner who can help with upfront planning, financial justification/budgeting, prioritizing, analyzing alternative systems, mitigating risk, then implement and execute the project all the way through installation and commissioning followed up with continuous improvement and sustaining services. Such expertise will likely result in a more successfully executed project.
Consider the following checklist and a few other points and topics that are worthy of further investigation to help guide your automation partner selection process.
Business and Market Knowledge
- Does the SI have expertise in many vertical industries?
- This is important, because a benefit of having a partner with experience in many industries is that they can cross-pollinate solutions, best practices and engineering expertise.
- Does the SI have industry expertise specific to your business?
- Having industry-specific experience is important to understand the potential return on investment (ROI), as well as understanding the potential competitive advantages. Look for an experienced team who knows the ins and outs of your industry and understands your business.
- Is the SI open-minded to the company’s culture, and do they understand its business needs?
- If an SI partnership is already in the very early stages, are they listening to your key stakeholders? Or are they dictating to them? Do they collaborate with company personnel, or do they work in silence and present something that ends up requiring changes to it – maybe repeatedly? Well, that’s not cool. And it’s bad business.
Program/Project Management Capabilities
- Ensure a project management office (PMO) location.
- Do project managers have PMP Certification (Project Management Professional) and are they experienced?
- Insist upon seeing a solid and proven methodology for project execution, safety and quality control.
- Is a well-documented quality program in place?
- Is a well-documented project audit process in place?
- Can the SI demonstrate a substantial history of records?
- Can they show samples of templates?
Planning and Budgeting Capabilities
- Does the SI have business case development experience to get the migration or project moving forward? This is a definite plus if they do. Every asset they can bring to the table increases the likelihood of a successful project.
- Can they help fill any justification gaps to get the project funded?
- Do they have support, expertise, and tools for capital planning and for project funding?
- Can the SI demonstrate experience in these practices?
- Can they provide the confidence that they have solid cost-estimating tools to stay within budget?
- Will the SI provide the granularity of detail needed to gain company leadership confidence and provide it in native format so as not to ‘reinvent the wheel’?
Your automation solutions partner should be able to demonstrate mastery of and experience in the following elements to provide a full turnkey management solution.
- Front-end engineering
- Design management
- Integration management
- Deployment management
- Field services and/or construction management
- Communication management
- Optimization, advanced process control
- Offerings for onsite and offsite specific training for a new system
- Sustaining services
- Staffing capabilities while maintaining the availability of project personnel
Systems Integrator/Main Automation Contractor (MAC)
A MAC is an automation solutions provider with proven services, capabilities, and experience – one company to handle all controls requirements so there is only one (1) point of contact instead of many points of contact for cross communications. There should be no need to hire separate companies to take care of all the automation needs. The full list of automation abilities includes but is not limited to:
- Process automation
- Control system design
- Control system integration
- Control system migration
- Regulatory compliance
- Data centers
- Building automation
- HMI design, including high-performance graphics design
- Advanced process control
- Field services
- Technician services/calibration
- Shutdown, turnaround and outage support
- Installation services
- Commissioning/construction management
- Large-scale project execution
- Manufacturing operations technology consulting
- Manufacturing/enterprise resource planning (ERP) integration
- Smart manufacturing/IIoT
- Asset performance
- Performance analytics
- Manufacturing execution
- Work process management
Strategic Manufacturing Solutions
- Productivity improvements
- Industrial cybersecurity
- Energy efficiency
- Automation strategy
- Arc flash prevention
- Maintenance and support contracts
- Site services
- 24/7/365 remote management and monitoring support
Formal Customer Satisfaction Feedback Mechanism
- Can they share their Net Promoter Score (NPS) if they have one? This provides you with insight into the level of quality they have recently delivered.
- Request references
- Ask for case studies
- Do they apply to the platform?
- Do they apply to the industry?
Look for Over Promises
- Compare pricing to promises made.
- Watch out for poor design work due to a lack of time spent planning. This can be twice as costly as a good initial plan/solution/design.
- Look for a fair crew mix of senior and junior personnel. No company can afford to give up all their superstars. Besides, who would want to pay for their rates? A lot of junior talent is out there who, with the right guidance, will perform beyond expectations.
- Look for fairness and competitiveness.
- Be aware that the cheapest isn’t always the least expensive. “If you don’t have time to do it once, you certainly don’t have time to do it twice.”-Unknown.
- Find a trusted, honest partner with strong principles and work ethics. A company will discover there is no substitution for working with an SI with these qualities.
Familiarity with Standards
- An SI who understands compliance to general best practices, as well as regulations to all equipment, will help mitigate risk and keep the company compliant.
Code Migration Assets
- Ensure that your automation partner has the proper tools and accelerators to automatically capture and ‘rewrite’ the code into the new system. No tool is perfect, but it can save upward of 50% of code migration time.
Technical Breadth and Depth of Portfolio and Expertise
- Offers broad expertise of most process control systems.
- Provides access to leading-edge technology.
- Offers continued education and mentoring within the organization to expand versatility of resources on all control systems and stays current with new technologies.
- Has diversity and bench strength – in other words, is there just ‘a guy’ that can help or are there several to many resources in case ‘the guy’ is busy.
- Meets all control system requirements, regardless of the control system. A single supplier that has depth of expertise in multiple distributed control systems (DCSs), programmable logic controllers (PLCs), and communication protocols can make everything talk together. This benefit removes the risk of “Oh, we don’t take care of that part of the control system.”
- Is security-focused – cybersecurity – to mitigate risk
Track Record of Innovation – Problem Solvers
- Look for consultants who are experienced in problem solving. Each consultant has a specific strength and, when pooled, they can make big things happen.
- Ensure they can look beyond the technology and help develop good business process management practices for the future.
- Find someone who is strategy- and solution-focused to help meet business objectives.
Financial Stability and Backing
- Is the trusted resource too small and might disappear overnight if they win the lottery or begin to have financial trouble? If so, then what?
- Does the SI have many locations with several resources in various places to call on when needed?
So that’s the checklist, which will require further review and input from key stakeholders to ensure a successful systems integrator selection process.
Key Takeaway: Review and understand the most important items on the list for the business, but don’t ignore the rest of the list. Take the time to investigate each item. Any one of these items can rear its ugly head on an upgrade project or migration. And the thought of “if I’d only known” is a terrible feeling and will result in sleepless nights – and worse. Think through the risks of each item and whether stakeholders have the appetite for the worst-case scenario.
For sure, there is at least one systems integrator that can check all the boxes on the list to fulfill company requirements. The right trusted partner can realize all your company’s needs with one phone call. Finding a knowledgeable, world-class systems integrator who will lead your company to future success is worth the time and effort.