10 things end-users need to know about vendors

The selection of a supplier, especially for large control systems, is a complex undertaking. To help end-users with automation vendor selection, here’s a checklist organized in 10 categories.

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By Jim Pinto, CONTROL Contributor

IN TODAY's competitive global markets, end-users are scrambling to reduce costs and improve asset utilization. Many large companies have eliminated systems engineering and maintenance, preferring to outsource these functions. Mirroring this change, large controls vendors are expanding their offerings to “total solutions” responsibility, including systems integration, supply logistics, training and maintenance services.

Large process control systems typically include many different products, beyond the portfolio of even the largest suppliers. So, in the past, this type of business used to be the realm of Consulting Engineers and Systems Integrators. But more and more today, major automation suppliers are developing broader systems integration and services skills, sometimes directly competing with their customers—the SIs and C&E firms. This makes it difficult for end-users to select automation vendors. Go the old route, with local design firms and systems integrators? Or develop a partnership with a large, global automation supplier?

There’s another fact of life which complicates this matter. With the continuing saga of acquisitions and downsizing, you may start out with one supplier and end up with another. When companies are sold, the buyer usually wants the customer base, but will make significant changes as products and systems are integrated and consolidated. It becomes expensive and resource consuming for the end-user.

Checklist for End Users
Clearly the selection of a supplier, especially for large control systems, is a complex undertaking. The impact may last several years, if not for decades. The end user and supplier become joined at the hip so to speak. To help end-users with automation vendor selection, here’s a checklist organized in 10 categories:

  1. Early signs and proposal depth. It’s important to recognize that vendors typically respond to bids, rather than your needs. They may sell lower initial costs when they should really be selling utilization and integration benefits. Vendors understand tactical marketing and sales, but often can’t deliver on their sales promises. For large systems, you should expect to see senior people who can make longer-term commitments beyond the immediate purchase.
  2. Watch for licensing fees and add-ons. Some vendors become very creative in selling systems with minimal software, and then having lots of surprise software additions that end up costing a substantial amount of money and engineering time to get installed and operational. Trying to figure out where the real cost will end up requires a significant knowledge of all the vendor's products and how they interrelate. Avoid that kind of problem by talking with past customers who have already installed similar systems.
  3. Old versus new. Don’t go for the extras, the bells and whistles. First find out whether the system can do your basic job of control, I/O, alarming, trending, logging, and displaying. Can you make changes, and support the system without lots of complex training? Is the technology new and is your company the guinea pig? On the other hand, is the systems already obsolete, and will you be asked to embark on an expensive upgrade a couple of years downstream? Don’t get caught between old and the new platforms; there can be an arduous and expensive changeover process. 
  4. Standards. What is proprietary and what is not? All vendors claim “open” systems, but few are truly open. Are common industry protocols used without any vendor specific enhancements? The new system should integrate easily with your existing communications interfaces, such as HART, Modbus, serial, Ethernet, etc.
  5. Quality and customer support. Ask for customer satisfaction and quality metrics. Get a user list and ask past customers how does this company come through when the chips are down? For example, did they mobilize to support customers during the recent hurricane disasters? Do they do what they say they’ll do? Is there a trail of broken promises?
  6. Training and services. The vendors should provide training that is up to date, matching the system that is being installed, plus training for upgrades. They should allocate sufficient staff to hold your hand when new systems are installed, until you are comfortable with local support. What services do they provide, and how does that interface with your other service contractors? Some vendors have been known to withhold key information from other contractors as a way to demonstrate that you should purchase all your services from them. Avoid that kind of relationship.
  7. Long term support. How easily can you talk with the vendor? Is your specific point of contact have a high enough standing in their company to obtain the best support resources a year or two down the road? Is there a defined structure in place for problem-escalation? Can you get your project manager replaced, or will you be stuck with someone you may not like? Are you encouraged to have direct contacts at higher levels, or is there an impenetrable hierarchy? 
  8. Business and regional focus. What is the vendor’s primary business? Pure hardware, pure software, pure services, or a true solution supplier with industry knowledge and the ability to handle large projects? Where does the company manufacture, and where does it have engineering and support centers? Especially if your company has global operations, find out the supplier’s regional and global revenue breakdown, especially for the places where your company has major facilities.
  9. Financial stability. Review the corporate annual reports. How much of the total company’s business is automation? Is automation their primary business, or just part of a much larger business? How stable is the senior management? Do they have automation experience, or are they just “bean-counters?” Over the long haul, you become dependent on your supplier’s technology. What is their commitment to their technology? Find out what ratio of revenues is invested in new and sustaining developments, both in good times and bad. Can they financially support their system and their agreements with your company for the foreseeable future? Remember, if they go out of business, you may end up looking for replacements, or providing costly internal support for obsolete systems. 
  10. Partnership development. Many vendors look at partnerships simply as way to lock-in the customer. Are they willing to sign longer-term agreements, beyond the immediate contract? Though many sales people will sign confidentiality agreements, they can’t be expected to fully understand and retain confidentiality. They may also have agreements with your competitors, who may be their customers. This is where the importance of developing long-term business partnerships comes in. Look for long-term signals.

Future automation business trends
In the next several years, technology will continue to accelerate, and there will only be a few large systems suppliers remaining. The customer base and technology environment will not support R&D expenses for several different control systems platforms. The small, local systems integrators will remain, but the big suppliers are going to provide much better global coverage over the next few decades. For large distributed control systems, it should be recognized that there are two automation groups evolving:

  • Group 1: Investing heavily in a control room, knowledge-base approach. More connection from enterprise to field for data-to-knowledge-to-local/enterprise decision-making. Focused on making timely, safe and profitable decisions at the control room and above the open server architecture. Honeywell and Invensys are in this group.
  • Group 2: This group put the “smarts” in their field products, and uses their product volume approach to move into the control room and enterprise level. Examples include Emerson and Yokogawa.

Depending on your specific application requirements, sooner or later, you’ll need to make a strategic choice. Going with both approaches in different divisions of your company may simply be too expensive.

End-users must spend time and effort to select winning suppliers who can manage ongoing technology changes, so that they themselves can focus on core process improvements and market shifts.


  About the Author
Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology entrepreneur, investor and futurist. E-mail him at jim@jimpinto.com or visit www.JimPinto.com.
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