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Automation System Integrators Address the Challenges of Large Scale Projects

Vance VanDoren 10/1/1996
For the technically challenged, hooking up the components of a home entertainment system can be a monumental undertaking. For automation engineers that specialize in system integration, such chores are all in a day's work. They make their living by making the components of an automated system work together.

However, even the most experienced automation system integrators admit that their job gets harder as the system gets bigger. Large scale system integration projects can involve entire factories, millions of dollars of equipment, and hundreds of man-years of effort by both the integrator's and the client's engineers.

Plan ahead
Why do some large scale system integration projects go better than others? Control Engineering put this question to representatives from several of the largest engineering firms in the automation industry. Most agreed that advanced planning is critical. Wayne Castner, director of business development at Honeywell Industrial Automation & Control (Phoenix, AZ), notes that clients need to "define the objectives, the expectation and the matrix to measure success. A lot of times they define the need for automation but never really know if they really achieved the objective that was set."

Norman Bond, president of Industrial Control Services (ICS in Houston, TX), adds that any plans are useless unless they are thoroughly understood by both parties. "It is critical that the system integrator and the client are in total agreement as to what is required for the system. There should be a single point of contact on each side for communications."

Effective communications are facilitated by a positive working relationship between the integrator and the client. This is particularly important for the larger automation projects that can go on for years. George Zajiczek, a project manager for SCADA projects with Valmet Automation (Calgary, AB), prefers the "strategic partnership" approach over the traditional vendor-client relationship that tends to be somewhat adversarial. "Developing a team spirit is paramount." says Zajiczek. Ed Zinnes of IBM's Worldwide Production Solutions division agrees. "Work to avoid 'us vs. them'. Problems should be approached as challenges to the vendor-customer team. Try to work on getting from here to there, not laying blame."

The right mix
So how should clients go about building the best teams for their projects? The answer to that question depends in large part on what needs to be done. According to Andre Caradec, manager of the control systems department at Parsons Process Group (Houston, TX), there are basically four sources for contract engineering services, each suited for a different kind of project. Consultants and specialized system integrators are available for smaller projects that require limited engineering expertise in a few specific areas. For larger projects, Mr. Caradec suggests that clients turn to their control equipment vendors for help or hire a multi-discipline engineering contractor with experience in the automation industry.

IBM's Zinnes adds that the right mix depends on the skills and expertise available from the client's own engineers. "Say that the area of the rectangles [in Figure 1] represent the total expertise needed to make the project a success. The customer and integrator split responsibility for the total expertise needed. The 'best' split will depend on the level of participation of the customer in the project. If the vendor is providing 'body shop' services, the vendor needs little more than technical skills. As the project moves toward turn-key, the vendor's industry domain expertise must be better."

Value beyond technical skills
System integrators can also add value to a project team in non-technical ways. Doug French of Lockwood Greene Engineers (Spartanburg, SC) sees contract engineers as a resource to be allocated for economic reasons. According to Mr. French, almost any manufacturing business subject to fluctuations in capital spending can benefit from outside assistance when the in-house staff is already fully committed to existing projects or dedicated to maintaining current production. Clients can not generally justify sufficient permanent staff to do large projects on their own unless their business is particularly prosperous or at least growing fast enough to keep the in-house staff effectively utilized.

Hiring third party engineers may also be more cost effective. Honeywell's vice president of chemicals industry marketing, Chris Reid, notes that "internal organizations may have a higher cost associated with them than going outside where it's a market based pricing level."

Look to the future
Clearly, technical expertise and cost considerations play key roles in determining which, if any, outside engineering firm is best suited for a particular project. However, clients should also consider the long term consequences of their choices. Craig Harting, Honeywell's vice president of export and support operations, feels that large automation projects are best handled by large, well-established system suppliers that can provide the automation equipment as well as the required technical expertise. Mr. Harting notes that system integrators with no stake in the continuing operation of the automation system often walk away when the project is complete. "An integrated system supplier", on the other hand, "is there through the effective life of the solution."

ICS's Bond takes a different perspective. "The client should always choose an integrator who has the capabilities to provide after-commissioning service and support. Since the integrator is most familiar with the equipment, he is the best choice for making system changes after installation and to provide maintenance and trouble shooting services." It is, after all, in the integrator's best interest to continue to serve their clients' needs. Otherwise, says Valmet's Zajiczek, engineering firms like Valmet could lose their repeat customers and as much as half of their business.

Experience is the key
Many factors determine the success of a large scale automation project, but only one seemed equally important to all of the contributors to this article -- experience. Experience with the application, experience with the relevant technology, and experience with project management and execution can make all the difference. Not coincidentally, experience is the one commodity that every system integrator sells.

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