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Automation is a huge industry, but how do you quantify who is a good integrator and who isn’t? I would like to help you by answering this question with the steps that I have learned in my career. I have spent 99 percent of my career on the integrator side of the industry, and recently become the end customer, but that doesn’t make this process any easier for me and my company. Where it does help me, is knowing where to find the weak and strong points of an integrator’s company, due to knowing all the steps required for a successful automation project.
1. Find a reputable integrator who has done your type of automation work you need
You can find these integrators via networking, internet, or automation shows/conferences. Out of all the methods, networking is the easiest method. It doesn’t require the time and effort of the other two methods, with the benefit of talking to all your friends. If you are in manufacturing, someone you know has used an integrator. Just ask around! If you can’t get to a show/conference, the internet is always at your fingertips. Look up the key words for your process for an endless number of integrators across the globe. But, who is the best? If you go this route, you may need to just dig in a little deeper into the next steps, but you may have found your integrator. Lastly, shows/conferences are the last great way to meet a new integrator. At shows, you can see what their work looks like, meet some of the sales people or key engineers, and ask more detailed questions in person for your project. Also, you can ask around multiple integrators in the same automation process space within minutes of each other, a win-win situation. If none of these methods are fruitful, don’t be discouraged, just go to SME.org or automate.org, to name a couple organizations that can help you find an integrator.
2. Go visit the integrator’s facility and meet their team
For any automation project, the integrator’s team should include a project manager, mechanical engineer, controls engineer, shop floor manager, installation manager, and purchasing department manager. These various disciplines and their teams play a key role in your future project! If any of these teams are lacking, then the integrator will need to outsource those disciplines. Now, if the integrator is well established outsourcing isn’t all bad, it means they have a backup plan to keep your project on schedule. On the other hand, keeping everything in-house is great and controlled, but can also limit the project capacity of the integrator. If they are not a stable enough company to manage all of their future projects and yours, everything in-house can be risky on your time critical projects.
“Organization is important for keeping track of so many projects at one time and not losing control of parts coming in or out of the facility, hence why a lot of integrators are ISO certified”
3. Walk the integrator’s shop floor
Is their shop floor clean and tidy or messy and un-organized? Most well-established integrators have a large shop floor with multiple projects going at once, hence creating a “hidden factory” of risk if not well organized. Organization is important for keeping track of so many projects at one time and not losing control of parts coming in or out of the facility, hence why a lot of integrators are ISO certified. This certification helps new customers feel at ease that they care about their team and yours. Project management style can also be visible during a tour. Well led projects will have some type of project board that illustrates project schedule, status, open issues, or even missing parts. This type of communication helps keep all team members abreast of what is required to complete the project.
4. Ask about their future state of business and some references you can speak to.
These two questions are so helpful for the longevity and transparency between the teams. Asking about their future state is asking, “Do you have room for my project in your project forecast?” This isn’t just room for your physical footprint on their shop floor, but also their engineering and quoting phases of the project. If they don’t have room, can you adjust your project timeline, or can they adjust theirs’? Ask for references! The integrator isn’t going to give you a bad reference of a project, so when you chat with the other end customer, let your own intuition guide you through the conversation.
5. Legal and Financial
Legal will want a Non-Disclosure Agreement first and foremost, and then Terms and Conditions (T&Cs) before issuing any purchase order. The T&Cs should be sent to the integrator when you ask for a project to be budgetary/firm quoted. This allows the integrator time to review internally and quote the materials required for the project per end customer’s company/plant standards. If the T&Cs don’t get issued at time of quoting, the project’s schedule is likely to slip and/or break. For the financial team, I would recommend a business credit check on the integrator. This financial check should be reviewed by your top executives to discuss the risks with the integrator’s payment practices, business conditions, and historical relationships with others. If you are new to this report, ask your financial officer and they can give you more details.
Following these steps, you and your company will be successful in finding an excellent automation integrator and partner for your project. Happy integrator hunting!