The 4 rules + 1 to know before signing a contract with your automation provider

Firma contratto

If you need to commission a new line or upgrade an existing line and believe you have found the right automation partner, be sure to follow these simple but fundamental advice.

I am sure that at least once you thought about what it would do if you found yourself in one of these circumstances:

● your automation provider has closed (or died …);

● your supplier has decided to do something else and no longer supports old customers;

● you argued with your supplier but don’t know how to get out of it without compromising production;

These are situations I encounter more and more often.

It is a frequent condition, in some ways even physiological: automation systems are made to last several years. It is already difficult to plan for 2 or 3 years, let alone predict what will happen in 10 or 15 years.

And now that you’ve finally found the right supplier to manage the automation of the new production line or to modernize the existing line, how can you protect yourself if things don’t go right?

Here are 4 simple rules + 1 suggestion (the result of 25 years of experience in the sector) that you need to know and include in the contract /order so that this choice does not turn into a nightmare in a few years and you do not create big problems with your manager (or competitors).

1. The choice of materials

Many manager or technicians do not give the right weight to the materials that will be used for the electrical panel or for the instrumentation in the field.

It is enough if the name of a well-known manufacturer is written on the offer somewhere (see Siemens) and everything else is taken for granted.

This is a big mistake.

I am the first to say that the main component of automation, that is the PLC, must be only from a primary brand. And when I say primary brand in the world of plastic or rubber I talk about Siemens or Rockwell .

But the PLC is not the only component you need to worry about.

In general, and this is very important, you must oblige the supplier to use only commercial brands of  leader brand even for the other important components.

● No to products built at home by the supplier;

● No to products not available in the local market;

If, for example, it offers you an operator panel of a Chinese brand because it costs less, in case of failure after a few years you risk not finding the panel anymore; or find it but with a different configuration that would force you to redo the software. At the end you will spend more than ask immediately for a known brand of which are available spare parts for years.

In the same way, if they propose you some component built at home or non-commercial, see load cells amplifiers , you would be obliged for the future to always buy from him and, in the event of one of the situations mentioned above, would be serious trouble.

So, before signing, ask for a complete list of the brands used in the control cabinet for the main components,  in general electronic ones, if you do not know any names or they seems strange do a search on the internet.

2. The choice of software

This point would require a long study if not an ad hoc article.

But these considerations are enough for the purpose of this post .

The software (PC or PLC) is divided into 2 groups:

● Software of companies specialized in the sector with different systems installed;

● Software made to customer specifications (you say what they must do).

In the first case, we can say that more or less any solution is good. If you have decided to sign up for a supplier, I imagine that you have seen the software in demo mode or better yet at a real customer, you know the features and you know what it can or cannot do.

In the second case you take a big risk.

Of course a capable programmer is able to develop software to dose components or manage a mixer, but you have to tell him exactly how to do it, what functions he must have and what data he has to manage.

In practice it is your experience put into the software. And that’s right.

But in doing so you lose the experience of dozens or hundreds of other customers with whom specialized companies in the sector have worked.

If instead your experience could be added to that of others, you would get an incredible product and certainly reliable, much more reliable than the one made for the first time.

We adopt this approach: we show you the latest version of the software and on this, if you have experiences to make, we improve the functions based on your requests.

So, if you’re not a daredevil and you don’t like the risk, make sure you see some (not one) example of software actually installed .

The choice of SCADA or graphics or data management is important but not as what I just told you about.

3 . The documentation

Not having the updated plant documentation is a bit like running a car without insurance.

If the only one who knows the electrical components installed is the company that did the job for you and this does not keep the wiring diagrams or the modifications in the field up to date because they remember everything “by heart” or because they write them by hand on the sheets somewhere, it’s a big problem.

It is a problem because those who will have to operate afterwards will have to spend a lot of time to understand what has been done.

So, when you make the contract, be sure to indicate that the plant documentation must always be updated at the end of the test and you must receive a copy both in paper and in pdf.

By documentation I mean:

● wiring diagrams;

● detailed document of the data exchange with the management software;

● operator manual;

4 . The commissioning

In order to start  on the right foot, you have to clearly specify which activities in the field are included the supply and which are your responsibility.

The fact of saying “… if I didn’t write it is excluded” is decidedly not serious because we who do these things every day know exactly what are in our responsibility, but you who face these projects sporadically you have the right to know what costs you will incur.

The actual test can usually be purchased in final balance or turnkey mode.

In both cases, be careful.

Because with the final balance sheet you could pay for an exaggeration of days, while with the turnkey formula, if the company have no specific experience and fails to estimate the job it could devote little time to testing activities leaving you with problems even months later.

The solution for both cases is to ask and indicate on the order/contract how many days they expect and what detailed activities they have considered.

In this way, if the activities are expanded too much, you have an element to discuss with the supplier. While with the “turnkey” if you see that they have spent little time for after-sales assistance or for training, you can ask for more days.

You can use this method also to compare suppliers and see how experienced they are in these activities.

5 . The myth of software sources

The fundamental problem of companies like ours in leaving the sources code to the customer is that, especially in Italy, there is no strong protection of know- how.

We run the risk of seeing parts of our software in competing products or, worse, seeing our own software, with a slightly changed face, on new installations.

It may not seem but I guarantee you that to maintain and improve the programs there is a huge and constant work behind it.

When you buy an automation on an already established basis and pay it a few thousand euros, you take advantage of all this work . You have the right to use the software but it is not your right to have the sources code as you wish

If we see it from a different point of view, when the customer asks you for a compound with extreme specifications and you can produce it, you sell the result. It is very difficult to deliver (free of charge) even the formulation and instructions of the process.

Here the problem arises: how do you protect yourself if your supplier disappears after a few years and with it the source of the software?

First of all, and this applies as a fundamental rule, make sure you choose a supplier that has been in operation for several years. For example, we have been on the market for 25 years. But even companies with at least 8 years of life are considered stable (from the ISTAT survey, on average 40% of small and micro businesses in Italy closes within 5 years of opening).

The question, however, is complex. We have adopted this method which I suggest you :

● We always leave the customer with a copy of the PLC program where we only block the special functions of the scales and mixers. This allows the maintenance to solve a possible problem in the field and also to make some small changes (insert a delay, change the logic of some valve, etc. ) without affecting the functioning of the main components;

On request, we deposit the PLC and PC source software with a notary. You don’t have to think about a complicated practice: in the world of software developers it is a widespread practice (search for source code escrow on the internet). Under a contract that has a negligible annual cost , the notary give you copies of the sources code if the supplier is no longer able to perform the services provided in the contract (usually maintenance and assistance);

To conclude this critical point I want to make a further consideration.

The fact of having the sources code of an automation system, perhaps made for several years, is a necessary but not sufficient condition to easily change the supplier. This is because each of us programmers works differently with different functions and often different technologies.

Therefore it is not easy to ask a new supplier to take charge of something done by others and on this basis to make changes or implementations.

And you will realize that it is not even cheap, because in addition to making the changes, you must study how the original project was made and thought.

The truth is that you have to think of automation as something that needs to be renewed periodically, every 10-15 years.

On the other hand, if you think about it, 15 years ago there were no today technologies and certainly in 15 years it will still be different.

Therefore, having the sources of the old system can help but is not essential, as long as the upgrade project is done by a company that specializes in your sector, which in the meantime will have continued to improve its products.

Conclusions

Probably what I wrote will make some of my “competitors” angry because I revealed the tricks that someone uses to lower the price and take the job.

But I believe that an informed customer is the best way to have a high quality industry standard and, in the end, work better all.

If you want to leave me some comments you can use this same space or write to claudio.tosi@multidata.it .

If, on the other hand, you are about to sign a contract and something doesn’t like you, call me at +39 059537902 I’ll be happy to give you my opinion.

Buona vita

Claudio Tosi