To Outsource or Not to Outsource

Sept. 17, 2003
A new reader-authored column: When Lucifer came to take my soul

Like most small to mid-sized manufacturing firms today, ours has been faced with the prospect of outsourcing many of our engineering functions, particularly control design and system integration.

By design, the products we manufacture require proprietary machines and process equipment. For these complex and always unique machines, our humble engineers are tasked with the concept, design, engineering, release, assembly supervision, start-up, and, of course, the inevitable modifications that follow. From the mechanics to the electronics we take great pride in doing it all in-house...until now.

The sacrilegious prospect of outsourcing first manifested itself during a meeting to discuss the initial concept of a new production line. The president spoke first, outlining the basic objective of the new line. Next the process guys chimed in with what they believed the yields would be and how those yields would be achieved through employing Six Sigma blah...blah...blah.

We engineers followed with the logistics of the whole project, including basic design concepts and integrating niceties like HMIs, DAQ, SPC, etc. Of course, no such discussion would be complete without the input of the accounting department, and that's when "he" spoke up. I'll call him Bob, or maybe I'll call him Lucifer. "We may want to consider outsourcing part of this project," he said.

What part? We soon learned what part: the controls part.

It turns out Mr. Bean Counter's (a.k.a. Lucifer's) brother-in-law was an electrical engineer with a local integration house. He went on to extol the virtues of outsourcing: quicker turnover, distributed liability, start-up support, system maintenance, and lower cost.

Lower cost? I'm proud to profess that most of the control systems we currently employ were designed, in most cases wired, and implemented (successfully) by yours truly. Long after the time clock struck 5 p.m., I'd be crunching numbers, drawing schematics, knocking out control boxes, or terminating wires, all on my dime. Lower cost? What could be lower than free?

In addition, when the third-shift foreman has a problem at three o'clock in the morning, guess who he calls for instant, albeit a little incoherent, support? Try that with your local integration house.

I admit there are cases that warrant outsourcing. Some projects are outside the scope of what we are able to do in-house. After all, our primary business is not control integration. The full-time resources we're able to dedicate to control projects is limited to myself and one technician, who I have to share with whatever fire springs up during the normal or abnormal course of business. And while I try to stay current through reading trade journals and attending an occasional seminar, it seems that finding the time to keep abreast of every technological development in the control and integration business is proving to be more difficult, if not impossible.

But enough about the pros of outsourcing, back to me. An inherent part of designing and building a system yourself is the level of intimacy (not that kind of intimacy!) you share with the system. For starters I work in the industry the system is being built for. This gives me an understanding far superior than a third-party contractor can have of the core process. I also have unfettered access to the operators on the plant floor who will ultimately work with and operate the equipment. These people can provide indispensable input regarding ergonomics and operability. Also, working side-by-side with maintenance staff and technicians during the design phase of a project provides valuable insight into designing a system that is easy to diagnose and more efficient to service.

And as I mentioned earlier I'm never really off the clock. Some people may regard this as a negative component of in-house design but I look at it differently. Because I designed the system, I have a thorough understanding of how it works, which gives me an edge during troubleshooting. In most cases I can quickly diagnose a problem, either over the phone or on-site. This pays dividends when you consider that downtime could cost the company hundreds or thousands of dollars per hour in lost production.

Also, let's not forget the satisfaction someone can gain from designing a good system or quickly diagnosing a system in distress. I believe there is no greater satisfaction than working with passion and being praised for a job well done. But this creates a superficial feeling of security. The simple fact is that outsourcing is not going away. Short-term analysis of outsourcing makes it look attractive to the people preparing short-sighted budgets, and now more than ever this kind of budgeting philosophy drives a company's hiring and staffing practices.

Maybe I should make nice with, Bob. Who knows, if things keep going this way I may be asking his brother-in-law for a job.

Tom Woronko is a control engineer at Mectrol Corp., Salem, N.H.

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