IN LAST month’s "Technically Speaking" column, we looked at whether you should select the automation department of a general engineering firm, an automation vendor, or an independent systems integrator for your next automation project. I discussed how project specifics such as project size, scope, and support requirements drive contractor selection.
This month’s column will look at how your company’s own internal capabilities and characteristics affect automation contractor selection. These capabilities and characteristics include expertise, corporate structure, and installed base. Let’s start with expertise.
If your firm is strong in project management, it often makes sense to hire multiple contractors to execute your project. This allows you to get the best-of-breed for each specific task. For an automation project, this might mean hiring a system integrator, an electrical contractor, and an automation vendor.
This strategy minimizes costs, and allows you to pick your first and best choice for each task. You also won’t have to pay any coordination costs, or risk paying premiums to a general engineering contractor. On the downside, you must manage the project closely, you’ll need to coordinate among multiple contractors, and you’ll assume more risk than with a single-source approach.
“A good solution for end users is to contract with both an automation vendor and a system integrator,” says Phil Murray, principal at FeedForward. “The vendor is good at selling hardware and providing post-sale maintenance services. The system integrator is strong with application software and integration with sub-systems.”
If your company is weak in project management, it makes sense to hire someone else to do it for you. This is where general engineering firms excel. Their internal expertise is vast, so the only task they typically contract out for automation projects is on-site electrical installation. They have extensive relationships with local electrical contractors and automation vendors, and they’re very good at managing multiple contractors to execute automation projects.
Robert Brokamp, director of automation service for Jacobs Engineering, describes the project management process used by his company: “A dedicated automation project manager works closely with our overall project manager and project controls group to develop costs and schedules. We use our standard schedule, cost reporting, and tracking tools. This yields a single coordinated project schedule which ensures early delivery of pieces of the automation system to support schedule enhancement strategies like phased construction, super skids, or modular construction,” explains Brokamp.
Other areas of internal expertise also should be examined, and the selected contractor should complement your company’s internal strengths and compensate for your weaknesses. For example, your company may have little or no expertise in automation system programming. If so, it makes sense to hire a contractor that can not only program, but can also support you locally after the project is completed.
Local systems integrators are typically excellent for post-project support. “System integrators are often relatively close to the end user, allowing them to respond quickly with resources to modify or add to the system,” says Bruce Jensen, systems marketing and sales support manager for Yokogawa Corp. of America.
Corporate structure is another internal characteristic that drives automation contractor selection. If automation engineering for capital projects is executed at each individual plant, then local contractors can mesh well with your company’s preferred method of doing business. This often means that a system integrator or a branch office of a general engineering firm is the best choice.
If automation engineering is performed at a central corporate engineering location, then it makes sense to find a contractor that can work with all of the plants served by the corporate automation engineering department. Automation vendors and general engineering firms are strong at implementing a common automation strategy across widely dispersed plants, especially when that dispersion is worldwide.
Installed base is a key internal characteristic driving contractor selection. If your company has taken a best-of-breed approach over the years and uses products from many automation vendors, then it probably doesn’t make sense to use an automation vendor for your next project.
On the other hand, if your company has a corporate standard that mandates use of one particular major automation vendor, then that vendor can be your best choice. “It can be argued that the automation vendor knows its own toolbox better than anyone else,” says Ray Bachelor, president of Bachelor Controls.
The automation department of a general engineering firm, an automation vendor, or an independent system integrator can be the best choice for your next automation project. Your best choice can be determined by evaluating project characteristics and your company’s internal capabilities.