Successful SI relationship tips

A little OEM insight says to expect integrators to bring their knowledge into your project, but your specific domain expertise is invaluable to avoid reinvention or, even worse, repeats of past mistakes.

Frank RiordanBy Frank Riordan, Founder and President, DMC Inc.

Last month I wrote about selecting an integrator [“System Integrators Bring Value,” Oct. ’06]. This month I have an additional chance to offer some guidelines for creating the best outcome from the integrator relationship. There’s no one correct path to follow when working with an integrator, but this might give you some idea of things to aim for and avoid.

Do—Communicate properly. Meet with the integrator early and often to define your system requirements. Identify a contact person for each aspect of the project who can provide or direct support. Hold brief, regular, top-level status meetings to assess progress and risk.

Do—Develop a realistic schedule. Many times a machine builder will put together a schedule based on external demands rather than real project requirements. Cost and schedule are mortal enemies. Take those realistic time schedules, and add time to handle unexpected issues.

Don’t—Assume your integrator will be ready for you anytime you call. If it’s a good firm, it’ll be busy. Try to give advanced notice of when you’ll need their services. This will save you time and money in the long run.

Do—Create detailed, complete specifications. If you can’t create them yourself, expect to pay someone—probably the integrator—to create them for you.

Do—Consult the integrator before specifying hardware. An unbiased integrator, i.e., one that doesn’t sell the recommended hardware, can be an excellent resource for hardware selection. Extremely important: make sure the hardware can handle the system requirements. The time required to make a workaround with improper hardware can be extremely expensive.

Do—Make sure the system is as fully wired and mechanically functional as possible before engaging the integrator on the shop floor. One approach is to have the integrator develop a simple I/O screen, so lower-cost personnel can verify that subsystems are functioning and sensors are adjusted before the higher-priced engineer starts. Use less-expensive resources for legwork, both in preparation and execution of your project. Keep your integrator focused on development.

Don’t—Expect a new program to fix machine issues or vice-versa.

Do—Learn from the integrator and ask questions about the inner workings of their development. Learn what you need to know so you can better support the system yourself, if you so desire.

Do—Add your own expertise. Expect integrators to bring their knowledge into your project, but your specific domain expertise is invaluable. Bring your knowledge to the table to avoid reinvention or, even worse, repeats of past mistakes.

Don’t—Ignore an over-budget situation while it continues to grow. Deal with estimate discrepancies while there is time to rectify the causes.

Don’t—Ship a machine early. I wrote an entire column on this topic called "The Perils of Shipping too Soon," Sept. ’06.

Do—Understand the tradeoffs between fixed-bid and hourly projects. Biggest drawbacks with fixed bid contracts are lack of flexibility with the design and inherent problems dealing with change-orders for every specification change. Be careful when selecting a low bidder. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

With hourly contracts, integrators are more likely to underestimate the time required for projects. This is human nature. People are more conservative when the risk falls on them, and more optimistic when it’s you who assumes the risk. A benefit (and drawback) with hourly projects is that the integrator will be more accommodating to changes along the way. This flexibility can increase project costs quickly.

Do—Ensure that your company owns or has an unlimited license for any software written for the project. Some integrators retain full control over the code created. This gives them some job security. It does nothing for you.

Do—Appreciate that the integrators must make a profit. It’s in your best interest that they don’t lose their shirts on your project. This is true especially if you plan to rely on them for long-term support. However, you should negotiate for a lower rate. Integrators often will agree to a lower rate in exchange for a guaranteed volume of work. It never hurts to ask.

Do—Accept some responsibility when things go wrong. If there are scope changes, hardware issues that cause delays, or lack of material, personnel, etc., this will result in additional charges.


  About the Author
Frank Riordan is founder and president of DMC Inc., a control systems integrator based in Chicago. You can reach him at frankr@dmcinfo.com.
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