January 2009

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Choosing the Right Integrator for Your Building Automation Project

There are many options: Automation Vendors, Distributors, Architectural engineering and construction firms, and Independent control system integrators

  Norman O’Leary

Norman O’Leary,
 Executive Director
CSIA – Control System Integrators Association

“Choosing the Right Integrator for Your Building Automation Project” builds on the assumption that your company has a recognized need and process in place to find, evaluate, and select a system integrator that can deliver what you want…and need.

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It’s very possible that until now you’ve not had to look outside your company for personnel to design and install a custom building automation system (BAS).

You probably met such needs with in-house engineers, a solution that is becoming increasingly difficult as an aging engineer workforce retires, replaced – if at all – by recent graduates with little firsthand experience with automation technology or knowledge of how it can be put to work for your planned BAS.

With Baby Boomers retiring, and taking their knowledge with them, companies are finding it more and more difficult to replace those skills. For the past two years, an online survey conducted as part of ISA’s InTech Magazine’s annual Automation Outlook has pinpointed the aging out of workers as the second most serious business challenge anticipated in the year ahead.

But when asked about the biggest challenge they foresee five years in the future, aging out was considered by the respondents to be the biggest such challenge.

So where do you turn to have that building automation system developed, put in place, and supported?

There are many options.

There are hundreds, actually thousands of companies of all sizes, skills, and substance that indicate they are qualified to integrate the myriad of software, hardware, and network options that make up a successful building automation system (BAS).

Control Engineering’s Automation Integrator Guide identifies nearly 2,000 system integrators, of which more than 40 percent indicate BAS experience.

However, while control system integrators would seem to be the right choice to make for a Building Automation System, a word of caution: not every such firm has the business skills vital to both their project success and their own profitable growth.

Which is exactly why CSIA – Control System Integrators Association – adopted its Certified Member program nearly a decade ago.

The landmark program provides an important management tool for use in evaluating and selecting control system integrators.

The program, which evolved from CSIA's extensive Best Practices and Benchmarks process, was developed in concurrence with Fortune 500 businesses and other companies that use control system integrators' services, control and automation product manufacturers that often team with these firms, and CSIA members.

The two-fold goals of the Certified Member program are to –

  1. Simplify what was recognized as the daunting task of identifying, interviewing, qualifying, evaluating, selecting, and managing control system integration firms.
    It had become risky, if not impractical, for companies to select a control system integrator based primarily on its sales volume, years in business, or size of its facility.
    Too much is at stake with today's demands on ROI and operational performance to simply use generalized evaluation criteria. The CSIA Certified Member program provides an industry-specific means to identify the areas of importance and minimize the uncertainties.

  2. Provide control system integrators with a means to evaluate and continuously improve their own businesses. The Best Practices and Benchmarks process also serves as an ongoing "checks and balances" tool that control system integrators use in a "self-deterministic" fashion.

CSIA itself marks its 16th birthday this year, now the largest such organization in the world with more than 200 system integration firms who recognize the need to improve and monitor their business expertise.

These are not just any integrators who want to join.

In order to become a CSIA Associate, a control system integrator must meet these criteria:

Since its founding in 1994, Control System Integrators Association has maintained a laser-like focus on its primary mission – to improve the business skills of its member-companies and their executive management – in support of a belief that being a good system integrator goes hand in hand with operating a good business.

From the outset, the common thread throughout CSIA's activities has been to "raise the bar"–

That mission is personified in the association’s value proposition: CSIA is committed to the business development of control system integration companies and their implementation of best practices in order to provide a healthy, low-risk channel for the application of technology to their clients.

It is a mission that is continually being strengthened. It was reinforced in 1997 with the introduction of the Best Practices and Benchmarks process, and further extended in 2001 with the establishment of the Certified Member program.

Control System Integrators Association is today the largest organization in North America (probably the world) for control system integrators. CSIA member firms provide more than $1 billion annually in automation systems, incorporating $400 million of hardware and software automation products.

Its members, located in the United States and around the world, provide integrated control systems for clients in the automotive, building, chemical, food, healthcare, medical, metal, petrochemical, petroleum, pharmaceutical, plastics, power, printing, pulp/paper, rubber, utilities, and other industries.

And while not all CSIA Associates are Certified Members, they are encouraged to achieve Certified Member status within three years. Becoming a Certified Member is more than adding a new plaque in the sales office; it means the company has joined a select group of Control System Integrators Association members worldwide that have gained this singular honor, earned following an intensive/extensive audit, administered by an independent consulting firm.

The audit process assesses Certified Member candidate companies’ performance against customer-centric criteria in a wide range of business, project management, and system development areas, including –

In a word, “certification” is recognized as the big difference in control system integration, identifying Certified Members as “performers,” not “pretenders.”

Many CSIA product vendor members, such as National Instruments and Schneider Electric, think highly enough of this program to require that their top system integrators be CSIA registered members.

All of CSIA’s Partner members, especially the major suppliers of hardware and software equipment utilized by CSIA’s Control System Integrators in automation systems, heartily recommend that their top tier integrators become CSIA Certified Members.

These include GE-Fanuc, National Instruments, Phoenix Contact, Rockwell Automation, Schneider Electric, Siemens, and Yaskawa Electric America.

Criteria and endorsements aside, exactly what attributes do Certified Members have that are important when you are selecting a building automation system integrator?

Control Solutions, Inc Best Practices and Benchmarks
CSIA Certified Members adhere to best practices in all aspects of business. This means they have in place the processes and procedures that foster honest contracts and fair risk allocation, proper billing, project management that focuses on adherence to schedule, and customer service that is measured. In short, your automation project experience will be the best it can possibly be, giving you confidence in your system’s performance and peace of mind overall.

■ Resources
CSIA Certified Members must demonstrate a volume of business with engineering content that assures the availability of adequate resources to take on the demands of your automation projects.

■ Experience
CSIA Certified Members must have a number of years of project experience to qualify as members, assuring that your project isn’t some novice’s training ground.

■ Dedicated Technologists
CSIA Certified Members meet the challenges of rapidly changing technology with proven technical management processes. This means you get the best, most current, technical expertise available.

■ Successful Business Ownership
CSIA Certified Members must show a record of profitable business operation, protecting you from integrators who may not be around to finish or support your project. They also must have in place adequate liability insurance and proper business practices for activities such as HR, accounting, and general management.

■ Learning Oriented
CSIA Certified Members must demonstrate a commitment to advancing their businesses with better processes and new techniques, particularly in the areas of project management and business management. They help to do this through their own internal, audited, quality improvement programs and by their regular attendance at annual CSIA Executive Conferences.

■ Stability
CSIA Certified Members must demonstrate the ability to provide the consistency and stability required for a successful project. Their human resources practices are geared toward retaining top talent and their business practices are dedicated to assuring long-term survival. Certified Members also have an audited disaster recovery plan that demonstrates an ability to recover data and records, as well as an ability to maintain business operations.

“The ‘Certified Member’ designation,” CSIA Chairman Ed Diehl points out, “serves as the ‘gold standard’ for control system integrators worldwide. All have clearly demonstrated their understanding and acceptance of what it takes to be good businesspeople, in addition to being superior technologists.”

Given a proven, responsible and responsive source for your building automation system, now it’s up to you to make the best use of system integrators.

In a recent issue of Packaging Digest, system integration columnist Vance VanDoren, Ph.D., P.E., notes that “system integrators can bring effective results, but the relationship needs to have a solid foundation."

“System integrators can develop a project plan based on objectives outlined by plant management, combined with the application-specific knowledge of plant engineers and operators. From there,” he continued, “they can implement the automation system that best achieves those goals.”

Ed Diehl (who is executive director of CSIA Certified Member Concept Systems Inc. (www.conceptsystemsinc.com) notes that experienced plant engineers prefer to bring system integrators into a project early on. “The trend has been to rely more on integrators at the initial stages of a project to help develop and specify the control architecture and approach,” Diehl says. “This is more of a consultative role and is a direct result of the end users' reduction in project staff.

“Instead of end users developing control specifications, they are coming to integrators with very loosely defined needs and expecting help to develop automation solutions. Rather than responding to bid specifications, integrators are helping end users solve problems by defining their current and future automation needs.”

Diehl adds that integrators can also help decide what to do, not just how to do it. “Manufacturers have more automation choices available to them than ever before. The key is to get the best return on their automation investment,” he notes.

“With the technology in continuous flux, this isn't always an easy decision to make. Where should they make an automation investment? What technology should they use? How should it be implemented? How long will it be serviced and supported? Who should integrate it? Part of an integrator's role is to provide automation advice and consultation to help manufacturers plan for their future success.”

About the Author

NORMAN F. O'LEARY, Executive Director

Norm O'Leary has served since 1999 as executive director of CSIA – CONTROL SYSTEM INTEGRATORS ASSOCIATION – the premier organization in North American for control system integrators.

Starting with 20 years at General Electric, Norm O’Leary has some four decades of experience in control and instrumentation. Prior to joining CSIA, Mr. O’Leary had his own marketing consulting firm, i.e. Associates, and consulted with numerous control system integrator companies throughout the United States. In his 10 years as executive director of CSIA, he has been instrumental in the organization’s membership growth and organizational achievements.

Mr. O’Leary has a BS-ME degree from the University of Pittsburgh and attended Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

Editor's note: Vance VanDoren System Integration Editor Control Engineering Magazine has put together a custom search engine at https://www.integratorguide.com/SearchContent.aspx?CSE=6 that indexes a database of automation system integrators who also serve the building automation business.  There are 380 companies in the list. 


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