Today’s highly competitive marketplace has resulted in reductions of technical staff at many manufacturing companies. Many firms no longer enjoy the luxury of employing controls engineers, so they rely upon outside vendors for electrical controls expertise and systems work. If you’re a customer, then, how can you ensure that the relationship with your system integrator is as successful as it could be?
Jim Davis works for Motion Industries and manages the MI Automation Solutions Center in Countryside, IL, where he designs and builds UL electrical control panels. He has 38 years of electrical experience, including work as an electrician, project engineer, program manager, and principal electrical engineer. Contact him at [email protected].
First, recognize that “system integrator” is a broad term. Myriad companies market themselves as system integrators. They can be found in every size and shape. They range from small panel-building shops to multimillion-dollar organizations. They can have one engineer or hundreds. They can have expertise in a single market segment or in many market segments. They can possess excellent familiarity in a few specific controls technologies or in many technologies.
Two things are true about all system integrators: One, they all have strengths and weaknesses; and two, they all exist because they offer value to customers. One key to a successful relationship is to match the strengths of the integrator to the customer’s requirements. If this is accomplished, the integrator will perform more efficiently and the customer will maximize the value received.
With so many options available, selecting the proper system integrator can be a daunting task for a customer. There are some vital elements for customers to consider when making this important decision.
Before conducting site visits at prospective integrator locations, the customer should create a list of requirements. What specific capabilities are needed from the integrator? What services must be provided? Is experience with certain applications, technologies, or brands necessary? What level of support will be expected?
The answers to these will allow the customer to develop a manageable list of integration companies to investigate. Once the list is finalized, site visits should be completed. A site visit allows prospective customers to obtain additional information that should help determine the suitability of the integrator for the task at hand.
One topic to consider is the stability of the organization. How many years has the integrator been in business? How large is the firm in terms of revenues, staff, locations, etc.? Do the staff and facility seem organized? Another key consideration, of course, is the pricing structure. What is the hourly rate for engineering, programming, commissioning, panel assembly, field service, etc.?
Once the selection of a system integrator has been made and a project is being considered, a new, entirely separate set of topics must be addressed.
The most important element to the success of any project is clear, consistent communication between the customer and the integrator throughout the entire process. To facilitate communication at the outset of a project, the customer should create detailed written specifications and review them with the system integrator.
There should be no ambiguity on either side about what needs to be done and which party is responsible for completion of each step in the process. The written specification should include items such as:
- Introduction/scope of work: A detailed description of the application and what work needs to be done. It should convey a clear understanding of the application and a definition of the desired outcome. Both parties must agree on these parameters before any work begins.
- Contact information: This is a list of the key contacts for each side. It should also indicate which contacts have the authority to make decisions when issues arise.
- Timeline: Establish milestones and expected completion dates.
- Standards: In this section, the customer can list requirements for use of specific manufacturers’ equipment, programming languages, communication protocols, wiring/labeling techniques, third-party certifications, general panel layout, etc.
- Documentation: The customer will expect to receive all pertinent information to assist in day-to-day system operation and maintenance. A systems integrator that is interested in creating a partnership with its customer will acknowledge that the customer should own the electrical schematics, programs, and configurations upon project completion. It’s a good practice to clarify this point and obtain agreement on the subject.
- Training: Depending on the project’s complexity, the customer may need to have key staff members trained in system operation and maintenance, including basic troubleshooting. In many instances, a manual containing this information will be provided.
Either party can address assorted other topics in the document, too.
A successful customer-integrator relationship reflects a true partnership in which each party does its best to fulfill its duties and responsibilities to the other. At the core of this relationship is communication. Without that vital element, the partnership will never deliver the intended results, ultimately leaving both sides dissatisfied.