March's column presented a dozen questions an end user might want to ask a system integrator being considered for a packaging automation project. Reputable system integrators are happy to answer every question that a prospective client might ask, but they often find that some questions are more insightful than others.
For example, “Have you done this kind of work before?” is often cited by experienced system integrators as one of the most important questions they should be answering. Some integrators will reply that all automation projects are alike, and from a purely technological point of view, that's more or less true. Configuring a programmable logic controller (PLC) or installing a proximity switch requires the same engineering skill sets, whether it's for a packaging line or a petroleum refinery.
However, the integrator who already understands the processes and methods used to produce the end user's product will be more valuable in the long run. Any integrator can learn the specific details of the proposed project, but the integrator who already knows basically what that PLC will need to do and where that proximity switch needs to be positioned for a particular application has a distinct advantage.
That's not to say that the only acceptable candidates for a particular job would be integrators who have completed exactly the same project before. “Customers need to be assured that the system integrator has the ability to complete the project, but they should be open to solutions from systems similar to theirs,” says Todd Williams, managing director of the Systems Div. at The Benham Companies, one of Control Engineering magazine's 2007 System Integrators of the Year.
Williams suggests asking not only, “Have you completed a project like the one being proposed before?”, but “What did you learn from that project?” Experienced integrators who already know the ins and outs of a client's industry require less education to get started on the project.
Industry experience also helps the integrator when it comes to defining the scope of the project. “Clients are often rushed to pull together their requirements,” says Bob Zeigenfuse, president of Advanced Automation, another 2007 System Integrator of the Year. They may not even have enough staff to draw up a complete design themselves, “so it would be a false expectation that these requirements are a thorough reflection of their true needs,” he adds.
It then falls to the integrator to interview the plant's operators, users, maintenance and operations personnel to obtain the plant's true requirements and align them with the client's business objectives. An integrator with the background necessary to ask the right questions will probably get to the heart of the matter much sooner than an integrator with less experience in that industry.
Additional questions and answers from System Integrators of the Year will appear here in future months.