May 2008

Projects remain fluid, users firm

By Scott Sommer and Christopher Russell

Systems integration is not easy work and not for the faint of heart.

Often the task is about implementing 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 and March 2008 issues, we talked about lessons for SIs. There were 14 of them. We now look at some tips for those of us who hire and use systems integrators.

Treat your SI as your partner ... communicate! You hired your SI to design and implement a complex control system, not to be a mind reader. Openly communicate all thoughts, questions, and com- ments in a timely and well-documented manner to ensure the success of the SI effort; in a true partnership, all partners succeed or fail together.

Commit to providing the right team early on - There are few things more aggravating or costly in a project than "late blooming brilliance." Commit early on to making available to the SI the people that can provide the right information in a timely manner and that have the authority to make decisions. Representatives from design engineering, plant engineering, production, validation, and quality assurance should be readily available on a regular basis to answer questions, review, and approve the efforts of the SI long before problems are experienced at the factory acceptance test (FAT) or at startup.

Clearly define the expected scope, schedule with the SI - Clearly define the scope and required schedule of the project for your SI. See to the issue, in finished form, of the contract documents such as P&IDs, formal Process Descriptions, Instrument Indexes, Data Sheets, I/O Lists, Control Panel Designs, and System Architecture for the best results. Key milestone dates such as system reviews, panel fabrication and testing, software simulation, FAT, commissioning, and startup should be clearly identified.

Establish clear performance and tracking metrics - Come to an agreement early on with the SI on a methodology to accurately track and report their progress on the project. The tracking mechanism should not be onerous and become a project in itself, just detailed enough to give everyone a good sense of where the SI stands on their progress. Progress on well-defined SI deliverables such as Functional Specifications, graphic screens, alarms lists, control modules, and reports make for useful tracking parameters.

Get buy-in from end users as the project progresses - Involve the end users of your system, the production operators, and technicians in the review and commenting process of the SI's work. Often, they will be better equipped and more experienced in knowing how the final system should "look and feel" than the production supervisors and plant engineers. These people are a valuable resource-use them.


Scott Sommer (, PE, CAP (Certified Automation Professional), is an automation technology manager at Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., a system integration firm in Conshohocken, Penn. Christopher Russell is principal process-control technology specialist at Bayer Technology Services Americas in Pittsburgh.