As noted here in March and May, the more time end users spend interviewing the system integrators being considered for an automation project, the less time they'll spend clearing up misunderstandings after the project is underway. Here are two more interview questions that system integrators wish they'd hear more often.
What will I get for my investment in this project, and what is it really going to cost?
Many end users look only at the capital expenditures for an automation project, but a savvy system integrator will make sure they consider the big picture, including all the hidden costs. For example, Michael Gurney, a co-owner of Concept Systems, notes that downtime can be expensive, so it pays to choose an integrator who uses standardized hardware to minimize the downtime required for equipment replacement. Gurney adds that “utilizing an integrator who will follow the client's established hardware standards reduces spare parts inventories and improves maintenance personnel's familiarity.”
Software packages with annual license renewals or upgrade fees can be a particularly aggravating source of hidden costs. Although these are typically legitimate expenses covered in the integrator's contract, many end users are unpleasantly surprised when they find they committed to paying such fees year after year. Asking a prospective integrator to explain all recurring costs up front can save a lot of bickering after the contract is signed and the project is complete.
Particularly astute integrators can take the question of expenditures and returns one step further. They can advise their clients on which automation projects to pursue. As Bob Zeigenfuse, president of Advanced Automation, puts it, “A good integrator can discover opportunities and turn them into useful solutions that further the client's business objectives.” This ability should become readily apparent during the selection process.
Where do you see the greatest risks in this project, and how would you minimize their impact?
Risk is also a cost that end users should discuss with prospective integrators. “It's important that a system integrator understands what risks exist in a potential project. It demonstrates that they understand the scope and have accounted for the unknown issues,” says Todd Williams, managing director of the Systems Div. at The Benham Companies (Concept Systems, Advanced Automation and The Benham Companies constitute the Class of 2007 in Control Engineering's Integrator Hall of Fame).
He adds that the highest-risk items in an integration project are the interfaces to other systems. “The integrator must understand the interfaces, and everyone involved must know who is responsible.” Says Zeigenfuse, “One of my pet peeves is the focus on the technological issues.” He says clients should ask integrators not only about potential technological risks, but about how they would manage those risks and the human element. He adds, “The processes and people associated with the implementation are more than 50 percent of the risk.”