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Control System Integrator Registration Promotes Excellence

Vance VanDoren, Control Engineering -- 4/1/2002
For lawyers, it's the bar exam. For doctors, it's "the boards." For control system integrators, there's the Professional Engineering (PE) exam, at least for the engineers on staff.

But is it enough for a system integrator to have an office full of technically competent PE's designing control and automation systems for their clients? Does that guarantee that the end-users will get what they paid for in a timely manner according to the agreed upon terms?

Not necessarily. A good system integration firm must also be a good business, or so says the Control System Integrator Association (CSIA at http://www.controlsys.org/). Since its inception in 1994, the CSIA has been on a mission to improve the business skills of its members, enhance the professionalism of independent control system integrators, and communicate the resultant benefits to the industrial automation community. In 1997, CSIA introduced its "Best Practices and Benchmarks Guidelines" (the BP&B Guidelines), a self-help manual designed to show system integrators how to make their operations work more like bona fide businesses and less like fly-by-night garage shops.

Raising the bar
Then in 2001, the CSIA instituted its Registered Member program in response to requests from CSIA members, end-users, and control product vendors looking for a way to identify system integrators who meet or exceed the standards set forth in the BP&B Guidelines. The CSIA commissioned an independent third-party consulting firm, Exotek LLC (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada), to perform audits of CSIA member firms against selected criteria from the BP&B Guidelines.

"We are pleased to be chosen by the CSIA to conduct the audits that will help establish important professional standards across our industry." says Don Roberts, principal of Exotek. "Of course, CSIA members know better than most the benefits of rigorous standards—in technology, in quality, and in business practices."

Clients, equipment suppliers, and control system integrators were polled for the most important criteria from the BP&B Guidelines for ensuring customer satisfaction in the delivery of system integration projects. These key criteria were then ranked in importance, and the rank was adjusted for the size of the company. This forms the basis for the report that is generated during each audit.

The criteria included in the audit cover all aspects of the business of running a control system integration company—general management, human resources, project management, quality management, financial management, and business development. The integrator is scored for performance in each area and is required to pass not only the overall audit but also the two subsections of project management and financial management, two areas that require special skills tailored to the control system integration business.

Passing an audit is not easy. The passing score for the overall audit is 85% and for the two specific subsections it is a minimum of 80%. Once the integrator has successfully passed an audit they earn the distinction of being a Registered Member of the CSIA. In order to continue using this distinction they must successfully complete an audit every three years.

Privileges, responsiblities
Registerered Member status is being heavily promoted by the CSIA and is starting to gain recognition from other organizations such as the Instrumentation, Systems, and Automation Society (ISA at http://www.isa.org/). Only registered CSIA members are entitled to display their trademarked logo (above/ right). Several did so in the 2002 Automation Integrator Guide (Control Engineering , mid-December 2001)

In addition, some control vendors are requiring members of their integrator partnership programs to be registered members of the CSIA.

"We will adopt the CSIA audit process as part of our Select Integration Partner assessment," says Jack Barber, National Instruments Partner Development Manager, "and will request that all Select Partners join CSIA, implement BP&B practices, and pass the CSIA audit." (For more about such programs see "Integrator Partnership Programs Offer Pros and Cons," Control Engineering , mid-December 1999.) It is not often that a company appreciates getting audited, but members of the CSIA are clearly focused on doing what it takes to attain the highest possible image for themselves and their industry.

Tom Nelson, president of Control Manufacturing Company (Napa, Calif.) joined the CSIA specifically with registration in mind. "I have never met anyone from CSIA nor have we been to any meetings but have gained far more from being a member of CSIA than any other professional organization to which we belong." Mr. Nelson also notes that the CSIA's auditor "provided us with plenty of beneficial feedback to guide us toward the improvements we will continue to make, even after passing the audit."

Quantum Controls (Plymouth, Mich.) joined CSIA at the urging of Jack Barber of National Instruments. They signed up for the Registered Member program immediately and passed the audit with flying colors. When asked if they found the program worthwhile, Dan McClung, vp of Quantum's test group said, "It is always nice to pass an audit and get the 'prize' but we really took away some pertinent ideas for continuous improvement of our company. Quite a few action items were taken from the audit that we plan to implement."

Mr. McClung also notes that "the audit provided real benefits partly through becoming a registered member of the CSIA but mostly having gone through the process. It makes a company really think about where improvements can be made and provides valuable benchmarking information that is hard to find otherwise."

Selection can be difficult
Perhaps more important than the endorsement of vendors and the self-improvement realized by the integrators themselves are the benefits realized by their clients. After all, end-users about to start a system integration project face a daunting task. First they must define the business objectives for doing the work. This requires a tremendous knowledge about the inner workings of their industry and its associated technologies plus a prediction of future market pressures.

Then comes the hard part—developing a concept for the solution. This adds the burden of knowing what automation-specific technologies may be applicable to their particular problems. Such skills tend to fall outside the core business priorities of most end-users and is arguably the principal motivation for hiring a system integrator in the first place. But even the process of choosing an appropriate system integrator to make the tough technological decisions can be difficult, especially since understanding the inner workings of a system integration company is also beyond the core competencies of most end-users.

Those that do undertake a thorough selection process themselves often try to select an integrator early in the project's development phase before the concept for the solution has been established. This gives the end-users another member on their team with the required knowledge about new automation technology. The selected integrator must also have a working knowledge of the end-users' industries and be compatible with their business philosophies.

Fortunately, it is generally not too difficult to determine how well the integrator understands the end-users' industry. Most end-users can look at past projects that the integrator has completed in related areas. Some end-users will also put an integrator through extensive technical evaluations. Others will conduct industry-specific audits.

Registration simplifies choice
The real challenge comes when the end-users try to determine if the integrator is a good company to work with. For that purpose, the end-users need to assess an integrator against some sort of criteria for good business practices, not just technical competence.

That's where the Registered Members program comes in. CSIA registration provides end-users with an immediate validation of the integrator's business skills. And since the registration criteria were jointly developed by integrators, end-users, and vendors from across the industrial automation industry, they reflect the requirements of all the parties involved.

Furthermore, unlike other quality programs such as ISO, this program gets to the heart of what it takes to deliver successful projects in a consistent fashion. The Registered Member program is specifically focused on the requirements for implementing control system integration projects and nothing else.

In addition, the registration process uses an independent third party auditor familiar with the industry. This means end-users do not have to learn about running a system integration business to assess a potential team member. All they need to do is visit the CSIA web site to determine if there is a registered integrator nearby.

The registration reduces the end-users' efforts, costs, and risks associated with the selection of an integrator by identifying those that have met an established industry metric. Registered integrators must also maintain or improve their business practices to hold on to the registered integrator status. This ongoing auditing is required by CSIA and done at the individual integrator's expense, further reducing the cost to end-users.

Using the program
As a spin off to the registration program, the CSIA has produced two additional documents for use by end-users faced with buying integration services on their own. These two documents collectively entitled "Guide for Selecting & Working with a Control Systems Integrator" address the best way to select an integrator and incorporate them into the project team.

The documents go into detail about the selection criteria end-users should consider, and they provide an evaluation tool for reaching a conclusion. They also cover a recommended project methodology for working with an integrator to deliver a successful project.

The Registered Member program and the selection guide can also work for end-users who are already working with local integrators. After all, there are hundreds of system integrators currently serving the industrial automation industry and only a small fraction have had an opportunity to register to date.

(For a comprehensive review of more than 1,000 automation system integrators, including virtually all of the CSIA's members (registered and otherwise) log on to the Control Engineering Automation Integrator Guide at http://www.controleng.com/integrators).

End-users could require registration of their current integrators as a condition for future projects. This would assure the end-users that if any of their current integrators have been coming up short on any of the required benchmarks and standards, those deficiencies will soon be remedied or at least identified.

In many instances the integrator would be willing to undertake this challenge themselves, but the CSIA will also allow end-users to pay for the registration audit. Not only does this arrangement facilitate the integrator's compliance with the registration standards, it allows end-users access to the audit results, which are otherwise kept confidential between the auditor and the integrator. In either case, the integrator would have to be a member of CSIA to qualify for an audit.

Although achieving the CSIA's Registered Member status may never become de rigeur like passing the bar exam or the medical boards, it will certainly prove to be a useful tool for end-users looking to minimize the risk inherent in selecting a system integrator for a project. And even if end-users never start requiring Registered Member status of their integrators, passing the audit will still be a worthwhile exercise for integrators seeking to improve their business practices.

For more information...
For system integrators, go to http://www.controleng.com/integrators; for more info, online at http://www.controleng.com/freeinfo:

Control Manufacturing Co.
National Instruments
Quantum Controls

12 Steps to System Integrator Registration
  1. Join the CSIA to get the Best Practices &Benchmarks Guidelines.
  2. Contact the CSIA (http://www.controlsys.org/) or Exotek (http://www.exotek.com/) for a copy of the audit criteria.
  3. Review the Best Practices & Benchmarks Guidelines and the audit criteria as a guide to the requirements for registration.
  4. Conduct an internal audit and take any corrective actions necessary to successfully pass the audit.
  5. Schedule an audit with Exotek.
  6. Collect any documented evidence required as indicated on the audit report.
  7. Ensure someone with signing authority and a support person are present on audit day.
  8. Conduct the audit.
  9. Return to step 4 if the audit does not result in a passing grade.
  10. Maintain confidentiality, the CSIA will be notified only if the audit results in a passing grade.
  11. The CSIA will notify the integrator upon acceptance of a successful registration.
  12. Repeat from step 4 at least once every three years.
Source: Control Engineering with information from CSIA

A System Integrator Grade Card  
General Management A+
Human Resources A+
Project Management A+
Quality Management A+
Financial Management A+
Business Development A+

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