Penny wise, dollar foolish? Many of us remember this saying, perhaps as part of a lesson our parents taught us growing up. Sometimes we can go to such great lengths to save money, but in the final analysis, that ‘penny wise’ decision ends up costing us much more than what we were trying to save! This lesson came to mind at the recent Siemens Summit in Las Vegas during a conversation with a Siemens end-user, Bruce Slade, P.E., Senior Projects Engineer at Mosaic Fertilizer, LLC. In no uncertain terms, Slade made it clear that he is a strong advocate of using a solution partner from the start of a new automation project. In his view, you may pay more upfront to have a solution partner integrate a new automation project, but in the long run, it is well worth the investment.
It was interesting to learn from a highly experienced end-user’s perspective, why choosing the right control system integrator is so important. Slade is a professional engineer who has been involved in process automation for more than 35 years. This article will take a look at why he holds steadfast to always using a solution partner for the specific automation technology his company has invested in.
During our conversation, Slade said, “I am a big believer in using a solution partner from the start of a project. It can be a costly mistake to choose a company based on a lower upfront cost when implementing new technology.” When asked why, Slade continued, “you could end up with a 2015 product functioning like a 1990’s product, losing the benefits of the advances in the technology.”
Slade explained, “The more powerful and more flexible a PCS (programmable control system), the more critical the system setup and initial programming. The setup decisions are often unable to be changed without starting from scratch. This is why you need the competency of a solution partner up front. After that initial programming, your company control department should be able to easily maintain and modify your system.”
As an example, Slade told us that he had experienced firsthand the repercussions of poor setup decisions when an engineering company claiming to know a new technology programmed a new PLC (programmable logic controller) using 1990’s ladder logic. Later, he needed to add a VFD (variable frequency drive) which should have taken one of his staff engineers about 15 minutes to do. To Slade’s surprise, the engineer assigned to the task returned an hour later to tell him adding a VFD was going to be a more difficult and complicated undertaking than anticipated because of the way the PLC was set up and programmed.
In fact, Slade ended up having to hire an outside engineering company – a solution partner – to completely rewrite the program. “It took a solution partner 30 hours due to the use of 1990’s ladder logic and programmer generated tags in lieu of present day block-ware and automatic tag generation,” said Slade. “The reprograming cost $750,000 and has resulted in decreased maintenance time and ease of maintenance. The payback was calculated at less than 2 years. The bad code would have plagued us for the next 10-15 years. This expense was both necessary and avoidable.”
The bottom line, when evaluating resources to use before implementing new technology, it is not cut and dry. In fact, picking the right system integrator can be a mission-critical decision. For example, if you are implementing new Siemens automation technology, a company may be familiar enough with the technology to make it work, but Siemens Solution Partners are specialist with highly developed skills in the specific technology for delivery of the most advanced solution.
“A solution partner must be certified and then maintain his expertise,” explained Slade. “The Siemens Solution Partners personnel, after training, will work on systems side-by-side with the Siemens employees to get on-the-job experience, learning additional tips and tricks prior to working on your system. By contrast other integrators often send their least busy programmer to the next 1 or 2 week school on your PCS after he gets your purchase order.“
To sum it up, Slade clarified his position, “Does a solution partner cost more? Not necessarily so. But in my experience, if there is a price difference, I consider it money well spent. Whether you call it TIC (total installed cost) or TCO (total cost of ownership), the upfront cost is virtually always the least significant cost. If you do not relentlessly pursue the lowest TIC/TCO, you can never be the low cost producer. In a tight economy, the low cost producer is the last one standing.”
***Note: While the term ‘solution partner’ is used in this article to identify the integrators Siemen has vetted and qualified to be part of its integrator program, it should be noted that other automation manufacturers use different terms such as ‘certified integrator’ or ‘authorized integrator’ to identify qualified integrators.
***More about Bruce Slade P.E.: In addition to his work at Mosaic, Slade serves on the Siemens Automation User Advisory Board, and is the president/owner of Byte Size, a process automation and process safety consulting firm. Slade has also written articles for trade publications such as this interesting article – ‘7 things noncontrol people should know about control engineers’ – for Control Engineering.