Systems integration has many meanings and connotations but the aspect I will focus on is when a company outsources the design, development and implementation of a system for an in-house project. The first question that comes to mind is: why would a large company outsource an integration project to an outside company? The answer is: time and money. If your company makes widgets, then the focus of the technical staff is to make the best widgets possible. If that requires implementing a specialized system to make the widgets better, then the technical staff may have little or no technical expertise in that specialized system. The learning curve on that specialized system might be very steep and the amount of time dedicated to overcoming that learning curve might be beyond current resources. So an easy solution is to contract that system out to a company that has a high level of expertise and can implement the system in a fraction of the time than what could be done internally.
Let’s assume that your company has evaluated the situation and carefully considered all of your options and concluded that outsourcing the system integration is the best alternative. What are the considerations you should take in selecting the right integrator, and how should the project proceed?
Selecting the right systems integrator
Finding a systems integrator might be a challenge itself. The first place to look is the supplier of the equipment to be integrated. The system might consist of several disparate parts from various vendors but each of them will most likely have a set of integrators that they know have an in depth understanding of their products. Technical expertise is a critical aspect to a successful deployment. Also, many industries have professional organizations that have some oversight into that particular industry and these organizations usually maintain a list of integrators that are known and have proven themselves. The AIA (www.visiononline.org) is the governing body for the machine vision industry, and provides a list of qualified systems integrators.
Another method of identifying qualified integrators is word of mouth. Ask within your own organization or with others within your industry who they have used and have had success. These usually prove to be the best. Trade magazines, like this one, are also a great source of system integrators. Many trade magazines have created buyers guides that list manufacturers and integrators. Lastly, if all else fails, try to search the internet. Unfortunately the companies that spend the most to be listed first in a search engine might not always be the best fit.
The key to any successful system deployment is communication. If there is a failure, it is almost always due to “a failure to communicate,” my apologies to “Cool Hand Luke.” Almost every system we have ever integrated required that we meet with our client several times to discuss the requirements, the time-lines, the deliverables and the risks of the system. The bigger the system the more meetings required. Once everything is clearly defined the integrator should provide a comprehensive proposal that reiterates the requirements, the time-lines, the deliverables and the risks. Some of our proposals have been 40 pages long because we wanted to make sure we were on the same page as our client. This might seem ridiculous but when the stuff hits the fan, there will be finger pointing and a way to avoid this is to have a very comprehensive understanding of the project.
I mentioned risks and listing the risks is also important, because nearly all systems have a risk of failure. In many cases we have proposed a proof of concept proposal which addresses the highest risk portions of the system. This proof of concept is a fee based effort that allows the integrator to prove the highest risk portion(s) of the system while minimizing the cost and risk to the client. The fee is nominal and usually covers the engineering effort and the results provide a non-robust, breadboard solution that either proves the concept or reduces the risk of the system. If the client is satisfied then the costs are usually credited towards the final cost of the system. If it fails then the client has an easy exit plan or perhaps may want to rethink the system and scale some of it back. One last comment about communication is that both the client and the integrator should have one single point of contact and that contact should take ownership in the success of the project.
What’s a fair price to pay for a systems integrator? The answer to that question is that it depends. It depends on how highly specialized the integrator has to be, how much engineering is required and what is the risk of the project. Being the lowest priced is not necessarily the best criteria for determining the right integrator. See who is the most qualified and most likely to deliver on-time and within budget. Also, make sure they have the bandwidth to get the project done. You might be dealing with the best in the industry but if they are too busy to really sink their teeth into your project, then it might be better to find a company that is hungry and more determined to complete your project. The price of the system must be fair. The integrator must be able to make a profit so it must be a win for them; otherwise, if they cannot make money, they might cut corners and deliver a less than successful product.
Of course some integrators will over-price their bids because they aren’t really interested in winning the project and figure that if they win it, they will make it a very profitable project. As a client, you must be involved in the pricing process so that you understand why and how the integrator came up with their pricing. Also, don’t be afraid to ask the integrator why they want to do this project. If it doesn’t make sense to you, then it probably doesn’t make sense to them either. Try to get the integrator to break the cost up by an hourly or daily rate. Expect to pay minimally $50/hour up to $250/hour. Also, the integrator will charge a percentage markup for items they must purchase. This is usually 15% to 25%.
Many systems take months and sometimes years to complete. Usually an integrator cannot manage the long payment cycles so it behooves all parties to break out the payments associated to short tasks. Break the project into smaller tasks and into deliverables that satisfy your requirements for solid tangible progress and allows you to pay the integrator for this progress. It is not unusual to pay a significant amount up front (20% to 50%) to help the integrator cover the initial cost of the system development. It is also important to make sure that money is well spent, so maintain lots of communication to make sure the integrator is doing what they are supposed to do. It is typical of holding the final payment (10% to 25%) until the project has successfully been deployed. If you are not happy with the performance, the only recourse might be the final payment. The integrator will be motivated to make it right so that they can get their final payment.
There are many topics that I was not able to touch, but this should provide you with a basic understanding of systems integration. Remember, “communicate and all of your systems will result in success!”