Anyone Can Be a Control System Integrator

Pseudo-CSIs are making life difficult for qualified CSIA members

 

Do you have $20? Get some business cards printed. Congratulations, that's all it takes to become a control system integrator (CSI), if you're so inclined.

Don't worry too much about experience. You can always just make it all up if prospective clients ask for references, since references are rarely checked. Daunting bid pre-qualification forms can be faked because very few firms take the time to verify answers.

This may not be very far from the truth. The bane of every reputable CSI firm has been the market intrusion of unqualified integration firms and the intense price competition created by these pseudo-CSIs.

Well-established companies with decades of experience frequently bid against the one-man band working out of his or her den. Purchasing agents demand three bids, and many don't care where the bids come from.

Established CSIs with hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in plant and people cannot be price-competitive with these upstarts. The one-man show can always buy the job, but sometimes cannot complete the work in an acceptable manner and on time.

Customers are sometimes led to believe the one-man show is actually much larger, and other times they are unwillingly forced to accept low bids by unrealistic purchasing rules.

These market disturbances were the subject of much debate at the Control and Information System Integrators Assn. (CSIA) (

www.controlsys.org) annual meeting in May.

The CSIA thinks audited registration is the answer. The organization announced its two-year-old registration guidelines will be required for all CSIA members.

"We decided to make registration mandatory to send a clear message to the marketplace that CSIA is serious about improving the professionalism of its members," said Bob Zeigenfuse, president of Advanced Automation Associates (www.aaainc.com) in Exton, Pa., and a founding member and past chairman of CSIA. "Members that are not registered in the next three years will be dropped from CSIA."

CSIA's Registered Member Program requires applicants to pass an intensive third-party audit. "Firms that pass the audit earn Registered Member distinction, recognition that we believe will serve as an important yardstick in the evaluation and selection of a control system integration firm," said Norm O'Leary, executive director of CSIA.

Audits are performed by Exotek LLC (

www.exotek.com) at a cost of $1,500 plus travel expenses. Exotek uses criteria from CSIA's "Best Practices and Benchmarks Guidelines." The criteria in the audit include general management, human resources, project management, quality management, financial management, and business development.

Integrators are rated for performance in each area and required to pass the overall audit and also project management and financial management sections. The latter two skills are often weak in small firms that are heavy on technology but light on business acumen. A new audit must be performed every three years in order to maintain registration.

CSIA hopes potential and existing clients will make registration a prerequisite for bidding. Because registration is only available to CSIA members, this would obviously benefit CSIA and its members, but it could also benefit purchasers of integration services.

"CSIA's registration program reduces efforts, costs, and risks associated with the selection of an integrator by identifying integrators that have met an established industry metric," according to Ray Bachelor, the president of Bachelor Controls, Sabetha, Kan.

Registration audit results are confidential between the audit firm and the integrator, and CSIA is only notified when a company passes the audit. Clients can gain access to audit results if the integrator chooses to make this data available or if the client pays for the audit.

"Client examination of registration results can indicate integrator competence in general management, financial management, project management, and quality management," adds Bachelor. "This provides end users with an immediate validation of the integrator's business skills."

Clients would still be responsible for validating the technical competence of CSIs, but registration would give assurance of capabilities in non-technical areas, which also can cause integration projects to fail.

Clients also can use CSIA registration to exclude unwanted bidders. A client can tell a favored CSI to obtain registration, and the client can then insert registration as a prerequisite in the pre-bid qualification process. This can stop purchasing departments from including fly-by-night CSIs in the bidding process.

CSIs believe registration will provide them with a competitive edge. "The Registered Member logo gives us a marketing edge over competitors. Customers are beginning to take more note of CSIA registration and are starting to apply registration as a yardstick for comparing systems integrators," says Bob Adams, the president of Revere Control Systems (www.reverecontrol.com), Birmingham, Ala.

CSIs also feel registration helps them improve internal operations. "Registration assured that we were meeting high standards of business performance and also established a best practices and benchmarks process that is the foundation for ongoing improvement," adds Adams.

Vendors using CSIs as partners for integration projects also may benefit. These vendors are responsible for ensuring that each partner is competent. Prior to the CSIA registration program, this meant checking out each and every partner, in effect, performing an audit of partner capabilities.

"We will ask all of our Select Partners to join CSIA, implement Best Practices and Benchmarks, and pass the CSIA audit," says Jack Barber, partner development manager for National Instruments (

www.ni.com).

It has been difficult for both clients and vendors to distinguish qualified CSIs from imposters, and registration could help. "CSIA registration provides precise definition to an industry characterized by general or vague descriptions," says Dick Beery, the chief executive officer of RBB Systems (

www.rbbsystems.com), Shreve, Ohio. "In short, it helps differentiate the real players from the pretenders."

CSIA hopes to create a virtuous circle with its registration program. As more firms become registered, CSIA will gain new members. As new members are added, CSIA will use some of the revenue from the additional membership dues ($600/year) to publicize the value of registration. As clients and vendors hear and heed the CSIA message, they will begin to require registration from their CSI partners, forcing more CSIs to join CSIA.

Of course, it could become a vicious circle for those integrators that choose not to join CSIA. They might find themselves excluded from bid opportunities, shunned by major vendor partner programs, and relegated to a lower echelon of integrators.

E-mail Dan at dhebert@putman.net.

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