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System integrators bring value

Oct. 11, 2006
The most-often overlooked factor in selecting a system integrator to implement technologies or platforms new to the machine builder is their willingness to transfer knowledge and deliver source code.
By Frank Riordan, President, DMC Inc.

IN AN IDEAL world, machine builders shouldn’t use system integrators. Some might say that’s heresy—because I’m an integrator. However, as controls become more and more important, I don’t think it makes sense to outsource what could be a strategic advantage or core competency. It makes sense to outsource commodity services such as payroll or machining, but not functions that provide a differentiating factor.

Well, we don’t live in an ideal world, so it turns out there are many valid reasons why machine builders should use system integrators (SIs). The most important reason would be to implement technologies or platforms that are new to the machine builder.

Another reason would be if a machine builder can’t justify the full-time staff. With an SI, the engineering expense ends when the project ends. Still another reason would be that the machine builder just doesn’t have the expertise to deliver the performance required by the customer. The final and often most-typical reason would be when a machine builder has a scheduling crunch and needs to get back on track.

Machine builders probably will need to occasionally use system integrators, so they should try to optimize the relationship. Selecting the right integrator for the job is critical, and there are some basic guidelines that should be followed. The criteria for selecting an integrator is what we’ll discuss here.

First, make sure the engineering firm you hire is stable and will be in business for the long-term. Having a custom application developed—only to later find no one around to support it—is a recipe for disaster. Verify that they have a sustained track-record, a solid credit rating, and that their turnover rate is not extraordinarily high. If an integrator can’t give you specifics of who might work on your project, it might be a bad sign.

There are very few real barriers to entry into system integration—basically just a laptop and a cell phone can put someone in business—and there are many small integration firms that might employ between one and four engineers. A very small firm might be the right fit for your project, but take a cautious approach when selecting one. Get answers to a few important questions. Can this firm support my system? If I have multiple systems, can it support multiple startups? If this firm gets busy on another project, can it remain responsive to us? Does it have the internal infrastructure to handle internal catastrophes—for example, does it have a structured offsite data backup system?

Experience level also is critically important. Specific industry or product knowledge is desirable, but there also are benefits to be gained by using an integrator with broad experience across many different industries and platforms. There often can be tremendous value in using best practices developed from integrating disparate platforms.

Hiring an integrator is like hiring an employee. You wouldn’t hire an employee without checking references, and it’s the same when you hire an integrator. Although many companies have non-disclosure agreements that eliminate them as references, any established system integrator company should be able to provide some references.

Most integrators have formal or informal alliances, certifications and authorizations, but the more independent the integrator, the less you’ll worry about commercial biases influencing hardware and/or software recommendations. In an ideal situation, the integrator doesn’t have vested commercial interest in the products being used on the system.

The last and most-often overlooked factor in selecting a system integrator is its willingness to transfer knowledge and deliver source code. Some integrators lock out their code or are unwilling to share the thought process behind a design. They might deliver an outstanding system, but they could leave you vulnerable down the road if you can’t internally support the software.

If you’re looking just to augment your staff, then freelancers or a technical staffing agency can be an economical alternative. The tradeoffs are that you typically won’t get the experience range that comes with an engineering firm, you might have to manage the project more closely, you can’t depend upon availability of that person and, in the case of freelancers, the project’s demands often exceed their capacity.

So, now you and your integrator are ready to begin working together. The dos and don’ts of that working relationship will have to wait for another column.

  About the Author
Frank Riordanis founder and president ofDMC Inc., a control systems integrator based in Chicago. You can reach him at [email protected].

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