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Look to vendors for system integration services, too

Hiring the services of an independent system integrator is a relatively recent option for end users that want to automate their facilities. Back in the days before PCs, PLCs and off-the-shelf software, the design and installation of an industrial control system was typically the responsibility of the vendor that provided the equipment. Most components were proprietary, and virtually all of the software was custom-coded.

Many of the major automation vendors still offer system integration services today, though they don't always call it that. Vendors typically describe their services as “application engineering” or “project engineering,” even though they often do the same work as a systems integrator.

Advantages and disadvantages

End users can benefit from a vendor's professional services if risk reduction is a particularly critical issue. Vendors know their products better than anyone else and will probably not make the costly mistakes that someone unfamiliar with their technology might.

Even with today's open systems, automation is awash with details and idiosyncrasies. Having both the direct contacts with their product's architects and the experience of completing many projects with their own equipment, the vendor's application engineers know better than anyone how to implement their own technology.

On the other hand, vendors typically charge a premium for their services, though the savings in implementation costs can sometimes compensate for the higher billing rates. End users that have projects with critical delivery requirements and/or complex product relationships should carefully consider this trade-off.

Another advantage of selecting a vendor's services is their ability to supply full life-cycle support. Vendors generally offer support contracts for their products and will often extend those to the application engineering. This provides a one-stop answer to any future questions in the life of the control system.

This, too, can be a mixed blessing. Individual vendors generally support just their own products, so they are naturally inclined to offer a single-brand solution. This can lead to less-than-objective product choices and in the worst case, solutions that are force-fit into the project.

Cooperating with system integrators

Many vendors offer the best of both worlds by involving third-party systems integrators in their clients' projects. Integrators that have been “certified” or “authorized” by a particular vendor typically have had special training and enjoy priority status when technical support is required.

Vendors with system integrator partnership programs will often leave the design and implementation duties to an integrator local to the project or to one that is particularly well-versed in the client's industry. That arrangement leaves the vendor free to focus primarily on providing the right equipment for the job while maintaining overall responsibility for the project's completion.

Furthermore, vendors that also have their own in-house systems integration division will often specialize in a particular industry or technology. They will avoid competing with their systems integrator partners by bidding on a project only if it fits their particular expertise. On the other hand, some vendors will not hesitate to bid against their own partners if it proves economically advantageous to do so.

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