13 Qualities to Look For in a Systems Integrator

A successful project can hinge on finding the right engineering services firm, says John Sever, president of Cascade Controls, Inc. Here are 13 things you should consider before making a selection.

By John Sever, president, Cascade Controls, Inc.

The role of an engineering services firm in process automation is an aspect of a successful pharmaceutical project that is occasionally overlooked. The firm’s expertise and ability to communicate within all levels of the plant can be crucial to ensuring that projects are delivered on time, within budget, and with the foresight to anticipate and prevent unnecessary code changes down the road.

Manufacturers who are evaluating outside firms to assist with projects must focus on their overall competencies. Geographical proximity is helpful, but not the final determining factor. One key consideration is that firm’s ability to choose an infrastructure that is well conceived and doesn’t require extensive support.

In the long run, paying for proven expertise is a better strategy than going for the low-cost supplier, as a lack of knowledge often results in problems down the line that end up costing more than expected.

If a process manufacturer really wants to find the right services firm, it has to consider the following qualities when conducting a vendor audit:
  1. Process Knowledge: Does the service provider understand the manufacturing process or does it provide a staff of programmers? Does it understand the fundamental engineering principles of your manufacturing process?

  2. End User Experience: Does the service provider have staff with experience on the customer side of the fence? Does it understand how to make things easy for operators, plant engineers, and system owners? Does it design solutions to simplify maintenance?

  3. Qualifications: Does the service provider employ degreed engineers, programmers, technicians, or some combination? Which individuals will work on your project? Make sure to ask for professional profiles, including educational backgrounds, of your project team.

  4. Attention to detail: Is the services firm passionate about its work so that its attention to detail exceeds most typical systems integrators?

  5. Independence of thinking: Are they platform-agnostic? Can the firm work with a variety of platforms and systems and not be financially rewarded for any specific platform? If it’s not familiar with a particular vendor’s system, is it willing to research it and report back?

  6. Key contacts in the industry: Does it know the key hardware and software vendors in the industry and the experts within those organizations?

  7. Broad-based vision: Does it have the experience to understand not only the process automation challenges but also the upfront engineering details that should go into the overall system layout from a process and process automation perspective, including naming conventions, operator and maintenance interaction with the final system and change control?

  8. Handle on the newest technologies: Is the firm familiar with newer technologies such as .NET and XML, and how and where best to implement them in a manufacturer’s architecture?

  9. Expertise in modularity and batch architectures: Can it and has it designed flexible systems and thought in a modular fashion? Can the services firm build in modularity and consistency to ensure that if the manufacturer understands one module, it can understand them all?

  10. Ability to view the project in terms of the end user’s needs: Can it design a user interface that is intuitive to operators without excessive training? Is the design modular and logical to enable end users (customers) to troubleshoot and create reports easily?

  11. Communication skills: Can the firm communicate with IT teams, operators, engineering staff members and project managers so that the entire team works cooperatively?

  12. Organized approach in project execution: Does it have a methodology for delivering projects? Does it do a good job of hitting its timelines (project milestones)?

  13. Strategic skill set: Is the services firm just doing what it is told, or is it providing value-add in terms of unveiling potential problems and getting up to speed quickly?
An established services firm can play a key role in the successful implementation of process automation projects in the pharmaceutical industry, and it can save manufacturers costly headaches in the future.

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