Is Outsourcing Worth the Hassle?

Emerging Markets Like China and India Have Larger Pools of Skilled People. Why Not Train Them for the Automation Industry?

By Dan Hebert

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Because of the shortage of qualified process control professionals in the United States, some companies send work overseas.

Karthik Sundaram, senior researcher at Frost & Sullivan in Mountain View, Calif., explains why: "Automation vendors figure that emerging markets like China and India have a large pool of skilled people that can be trained for the automation industry. The costs incurred by employing qualified personnel from these economies are considerably low and enable automation vendors to maintain profitability with increasing demand."

While this helps "fill the slots," it doesn't work out in all cases.

One end user in the chemical industry, who must remain anonymous for obvious reasons, did not have good results with a project involving a major process control vendor and an EPC. "The control vendor supplied one U.S.-based lead automation engineer and a stream of imports from India and Argentina," he says. "When asked if it could supply more U.S.-based automation professionals, it claimed that these people were not available at any price."

Both the EPC and the control system vendor outsourced the work. "The EPC approached this project by outsourcing as much engineering as possible," he explains. "Major pieces of work were farmed out to India, the Philippines, Spain and Mexico. This outsourcing often resulted in substandard work that had to be redone by EPC staff. There were very few of the EPC's control or instrument people that I would consider hiring.

"The control vendor outsourced its software development. The initial phase of control software development was done in India, and the vendor brought three Indians to our offices to polish the code. The Indians did a poor job; however, this was expected. We were warned up front that the Indians would approach the development task ‘literally,' meaning you would get no more than what was written, and anything open to interpretation would very likely be rendered incorrectly."

He was happy with the Argentinians, thoug. "The Argentinians performed very well. Their English was more than acceptable, and they were able to turn out acceptable product without requiring excessively detailed instructions."

Bob Zeigenfuse of Avanceon agrees. "We have found South American automation professionals to be better than those from the Near and Far East. But with all outsourcing, there are several key items to overcome, including an inability to estimate time to do work. We believe it is because labor is so cheap, they feel no need to be accurate.

Also, they don't challenge authority. When making an assessment of what went wrong, we'd find out that they knew the problem, but didn't feel it was their place to challenge authority. Meeting a schedule/deadline is a mere suggestion. Other than that it is a piece of cake to offshore."

There's no question that engineers and IT professionals from India and other developing nations are highly educated, capable and competent—but those skills appear to be stronger in areas such as data processing and communications, as opposed to process automation.

"Offshoring is a risky proposition," says our anonymous end user. "The risks can be managed if you know what to expect, and if you have the internal talent and time to pre-invest in software development."

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