March 2008

You can't talk too much!

By Scott Sommer and Christopher Russell

Systems integration is tough work. 

Often we implement someone else's design to the complete satisfaction of the owner.
Every project produces a list of lessons; the challenge after completing the project is to learn from those lessons and avoid repeating the same mistakes.
We have compiled 25 lessons in hopes that systems integrators (SIs), end users, and managers alike will not only gain respect for the role of systems integration in industrial project execution, but also avoid pitfalls and errors that keep a good project from becoming an excellent one.

In the December 2007 issue, we talked about 10 of these lessons, and the reader is welcome to check them out in hardcopy InTech or online

Here are four more lessons, which finish the tips for SIs themselves. In a future piece, we will look at tips for those folks who leverage SIs-the end users. 

Have a change management plan in place before  signing the contract.

Projects always change. Sometimes, they change often. The quickest way to frustration with the work and with the end user is to not have a well-defined, agreed-upon change management plan prior to signing a contract to do the work.
If the end user does not provide a plan, have one ready to present. If the end user has a plan that is incomplete or not acceptable, do not be afraid to negotiate. Find a way to reduce paperwork on both sides, such as predetermined costs for adding an additional 20 analog I/O points to the project, inclusive of all documentation, configuration, code, and testing. This gives both the client and systems integrator a little leeway while reducing the paperwork burden for expected changes.

Troubleshooting is not a group exercise.

When a systems integrator is on site, all eyes are upon them. At some point in the project, usually during commissioning, the control system becomes the critical path. Extra scrutiny falls on everything the systems integrator does. 

Learn to manage troubleshooting; it is as much an art as a science. Train your resources on how to detect, identify, and rectify problems. Teach them that troubleshooting is not at first a team sport or a group exercise. 

Use your eyes: Check wiring, configurations, fuses, proper connections, power supplies, operation of instruments, and the like. Eliminate the obvious, and only then, call in for "backup." 

Most "group efforts" lead to circling around the same items already checked and searching under rocks on a "different path" altogether.

Interfaces are planned; they do not just happen.

Whether the interface is with the end user or with an OEM supplier or equipment skid manufacturer, interfaces just do not happen. One must plan them and plant them well.

For the interface with the end user, identify your single point of contact and make sure they know who yours is. For OEM suppliers, bypass the account manager or project manager and find the person responsible for the programming. You would be surprised how often this is a third party integrator. 

For equipment skid manufacturers, become a member of their review team so there are no surprises later. Remember, however, their contract is not with you; it is with the end user.
Find a way to let them know the decisions they make affect your scope and effort. Share ideas and thoughts about data interfaces. Plan for this additional interface time and be cooperative. Nothing will shut down communications like a wayward attitude.

No end user has ever scolded an SI for over communicating.

Well, maybe a systems integrator has heard they talk too much, but it would be an oddity.

The authors have never been in trouble for providing concise, regular, honest, and complete reports and assessments to the end user on the status of the project. In contrast, the smoothest, best-run projects are the ones where this occurs, even if the end user has not requested the communications, reports, or data. 

The best rule of thumb: Provide weekly reports with tasks completed, tasks to be completed in the next two weeks, identification of any issues, list of data needs, and an earned value or project cost analysis to the client whether required or not. 

You might like surprises, but end users hate them. Open, fluent, and frequent communication helps prevent surprises of all kinds.


Scott W. Sommer (scott.sommer@, P.E., CAP (Certified Automation Professional), is an automation technology manager at Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., a system integration firm in Conshohocken, Penn. ChristopherRussell is principal process-control technology specialist at Bayer Technology Services Americas in Pittsburgh.