Who should do your next project?

Senior Tech Editor Dan Hebert, PE, takes a look at ways you can make an automation contractor selection based on project size, scope, and support requirements in this installment of Technically Speaking.

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Dan Hebert, PEBy Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

IF YOU choose to go outside your organization for assistance with your next process automation project, you have three main options: the automation department of a general engineering firm, an automation vendor, or an independent system integrator. The key factors determining your best option are your company’s project specifics and internal capabilities.

In the area of project specifics, you must determine project size, scope, and support requirements. Project size is a key factor because contractors often assign personnel to projects based on size.
If you have a $500,000 project, a $10 billion a year engineering firm will not assign their best people to your job. On the other hand, a $10 million a year firm is very likely to assign their top talent to your half a million job.

The big engineering firms have an outstanding depth and breadth of talent that is unmatched by any smaller competitor, but execution of your project is most dependent on exactly what people are assigned to your job.

In the end, companies don’t execute projects, people do. The most critical factor affecting your project execution will be the quality of the project team, and you need to pick a right-sized firm to get the best project team.

A good rule of thumb is that the size of your project should constitute no more than 20 percent and no less than .1 percent of the annual sales of your selected contractor. Projects above 20 percent can strain a contactor’s resources, and projects below the .1 percent threshold may not get the attention they deserve.

Once the right-sized firm is determined, it is critical to pin down exactly who will be working on your project. Again, the depth and breadth of a contractor’s talent is not as important as the specific people assigned to your job.

Project scope is the next key contractor selection factor. If your project scope encompasses only automation and system integration with a single vendor’s products, then an automation vendor or an independent system integrator with extensive expertise in the relevant vendor’s products can be a good choice. “The main advantage of using a system integrator is in their expertise with a particular control system,” says Richard Tullo, a project manager with Jacobs Engineering.

Phil Murray, principal at system integrator FeedForward, speaks out on automation vendors. “The control system vendor knows their own platform better that anyone. If the vendor’s instrumentation is being provided in a digital fieldbus installation, the vendor can stage the complete system.”

If your project scope is limited to automation and system integration among products from multiple vendors, then a system integrator or an engineering firm can be of great assistance.

If the project scope encompasses multiple areas such as facilities, process equipment, electrical distribution, and other general engineering areas as well as automation; then a general engineering firm with a strong internal automation group may be your best option.

“Some clients like to work with only one contractor for the entire project,” says Bill Pollock, the president of system integrator Optimation. “These clients contract the process design along with the controls to an engineering firm such as Jacobs Engineering so they don’t have finger pointing.”

Other advantages of working with engineering firms are described by Bruce Jensen, the manager of systems marketing and sales support at Yokogawa. “An engineering firm may be able to leverage systems integration pricing with other deliverables, and they can provide turnkey solutions at a lump sum price.”

Support requirements are the final project specific that must be determined. Your company may need extensive or very little support, depending on internal capabilities relative to the scope of the project. The chief factors driving the quality of support are the caliber and proximity of the contractor’s technical personnel.

If support is limited to product warranties, then an automation vendor scores high. Others can pass through a vendor warranty to some extent, but contracting directly with an automation vendor yields best warranty support.

If the only support needed is product warranties along with minor and infrequent technical services, then the location of the contractor is relatively unimportant. However, if extensive on-site technical services are required, then local support is critical. The selected contractor simply must have locally available personnel that can be quickly supplied at reasonable rates. Ideally, these local support personnel will be the same people that designed and commissioned your project. System integrators often scores high in this area.

Next month’s column will show how your company’s own internal capabilities and characteristics drive selection of your best automation contractor.

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