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Lisa Richter Director of Industry Outreach and Growth Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) Chicago, IL
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System Integrators: The Key to Project Success

PostedThursday, September 9,2021 at 6:57 PM

System Integrators: The Key to Project Success
Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash.

By Aaron Heinrich

For a host of reasons, many companies—including those making or modifying hydraulic components, controls and equipment—strongly resist asking for help when it comes to product development and implementation. Most of their reasons may revolve around ego and short-term cost considerations, but some companies just insist on doing everything in-house. From a business perspective, however, “doing everything” entails undertaking tasks outside a company’s core competencies, which is often a fraught decision.

Companies eyeing upgrades and installations of hydraulic controls would do well to consider bringing system integrators (SIs) into their projects to improve the project’s chances at success.

That said, SIs are like every group of engineering professional: Some are amazing, and some less so. Some seem to almost instantly establish a rapport with a client company’s design team and management; others always seem like out-of-touch outsiders. Like many consultants, some overstate their capabilities.

To help companies get the most out of using SIs, here are some observations we have made at Delta Computer Systems over decades in the hydraulics and motion control industries.

Why Outsource to SIs?

First, it’s important to understand the need for bringing system integrators into your design team. It might help if you consider hiring SIs as outsourcing, subcontracting or facility management. Your firm lacks the expertise to tackle complex wiring and components or programming in proprietary development environments, so you bring in outside resources. And that can take the form of contracting with SIs to provide the critical expertise.

SIs can provide a wide range of benefits, including:

  • Lowering operating costs.
  • Upgrading the technical capabilities for tackling a project.
  • Providing formal and informal technical training for staff on the team.
  • Reducing or eliminating the need for staff to become fluent in a particular programming language or environment.
  • Freeing staff for other, potentially more lucrative and beneficial tasks.
  • Delegating project scoping, planning, procurement and upfront capital expenditures.

“The biggest benefit to hiring SIs is their experience,” says Nick Bell, controls engineer and programmer at Milwaukee-based InterConnecting Automation, Inc. “We’re not working with 1980s PLCs anymore. The power and capabilities are far greater, and users are pushing the limits every day with how they are using PLCs.

“You need someone who understands modern bi-directional communications, varies signal types, programming and debugging,” Bell continues. “Additionally, a lot of the systems deal with high voltages, so it can become dangerous if proper precautions and protections aren’t taken on the systems.”

Hiring an SI can bring in expertise from across a variety of control systems, some of which may be beyond your company’s knowledge or experience and be overlooked or ignored during planning. Good SIs can help guide decisions on controls integration according to priorities you establish early on, such as budget priorities and future scalability. In the end, SIs may be the quickest and best route to a finished system that delivers the performance you need.

SIs as Partners

Anyone experienced in subcontracting knows you can hire help in an impersonal, all-business fashion, as if interfacing with a machine. And there’s nothing wrong with this. System integrators are consultants often hired to execute specific tasks, which can be done in an almost scripted manner.

However, companies will likely get more from SIs if they hire them as if they are bringing a partner into the fold. Ultimately, SIs want to collaborate, build and see projects succeed. No one wants to be just a cog in a machine; respecting an integrator’s feelings and desires can make a world of difference in the relationship and the success of the project.

In some cases, building partner relationships is easier with local SIs rather than multi-regional or national organizations. Smaller outfits might only have one or two employees, but they can often deliver the same or better benefits and partnerships as their larger counterparts. It’s the personality of your SI representative that will likely have more to do with the quality of the company/SI relationship rather than the size or reach of the SI’s firm. In other words, companies shouldn’t overlook smaller SIs.

Some SIs specialize in certain systems, which is generally a good thing. This means a company can take advantage of that deep expertise. For companies that didn’t standardize on a particular control platform, or if one their priorities is to remain platform-agnostic for future compatibility and/or scalability, it is usually best to team up with SIs who have a broader rather than a narrower knowledge base.

Also consider brand-agnostic SIs are less likely to be under pressure to sell or meet quotas for a particular brand. This frees them to keep your priorities and needs above all others.

Similarly, be leery of how SIs might gain long-term control of your systems. For example, some SIs have been known to password-protect their code and force clients to hire them for every change. It’s clearly a nefarious tactic to be avoided (and specifically called out in contracting agreements), and one step removed from ransomware.

When companies treat SI as partner, they’re more likely to keep the SI involved in all stages from planning through review. And SIs should have the qualifications to ensure specified components (especially controls) meet requirements and are the parts actually used. They should have a record of delivering results defined by a project’s established metrics and goals.

Potential SI Problems

Obviously, there can be problems with SIs. But it’s not always the SI’s fault. For example, when an SI handles design and implementation of the machine controls, company employees may not be involved and thus don’t feel much ownership. The SI could set up training, but staff may not get much from it. This can add cost and complications once the SI leaves and employees must troubleshoot and fine-tune parameters alone.

To prevent this, companies can arrange for the SI to provide employee training after commissioning. “A lot of our customers want to learn,” says Bell. “They don’t necessarily want to do the technical stuff, but they want to have the knowledge and control. If they can’t understand the system and how to make changes, then every tweak means going back to the SI.”

Another source of problems stem from using smaller SI firms. Larger SIs may have better volume pricing arrangements with suppliers, better vendor support and better access to limited inventory. (This is why distributors with SI-like capabilities may be a better choice in some cases.) Additionally, with more support staff, larger firms often have availability when smaller SIs are closed or with another client. Also, can the SI stay on-site to finish commissioning if there are unexpected time overruns?

Not least of all, the lines between project scope and system ownership can get blurry. For example, if a power supply is defective or performing outside of spec, who is responsible—you, the distributor, or the SI? Such concerns should not sour companies on SIs. Rather, talk about these concerns and issues upfront when vetting SIs for a new project.

Getting the Right SI

The best way to find capable SIs is to listen to their customers, industry colleagues and other business owners, engineers and industry insiders. Nothing speaks louder and with more authority than hearty recommendations from someone you know and trust and who has the appropriate industry knowledge and experience.

These people know how a given SI work on projects in terms of real-world expertise and secondary-but critical factors, such as being a team player, adaptability and the ability to add value above and beyond the stated project’s scope.

Recognize that highly recommended distributors may offer SI-like services, but being more than happy with how a distributor handles distribution does not guarantee that they will be adept at providing integration services. Companies must ask distributors the same questions and have the same conversations they would with a prospective SI. Alternatively, distributors can likely recommend a range of successful SIs if they don’t offer those services themselves.

Several trade publications maintain annual directories of SIs. In addition, the same publications may offer articles detailing system integrators’ work in different projects and illustrating their fields of expertise. If nothing else, those publications and websites carry SI advertisements that explicitly reference your needs and state their capabilities.

Finally, there are trade groups such as the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). It hosts a web directory of SIs, the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange. This resource lists SIs from around the world and lets users filter by different criteria, including CSIA membership, as well as CSIA certification—which, according to CSIA CEO Jose Rivera, demonstrates an SI’s commitment to the business and industry.

“The CSIA Best Practices and Benchmarks Manual sets the standard for professional management of an SI company,” says Rivera. “SI companies that successfully deploy best practices and can successfully demonstrate that can earn three-year certification through an audit.

“Synergy” may be an overused buzzword, but it definitely applies to well-crafted collaborations between industrial companies and SIs. Each acts as a force multiplier on the other rather than just adding their strengths to each another. It radically expands the expertise brought to bear on a host of challenges and elevates the potential of the entire engineering team.

The SI community is somewhat hidden from the industry. Most SIs grow through word-of-mouth and can fly under the radar for decades. That’s why many industrial firms have little to no experience with them. This is unfortunate. Strong SI partnerships can deliver outsized value and benefits that last for years. It would be wise move to investigate some SI options on your next control project.

Editor's Note: More information on the CSIA certification, can be found here

Aaron Heinrich is the motion products marketing manager and regional sales manager for Delta Computer Systems, Inc.

This article originally appeared in Hydraulics & Pneumatics