Recently, a major pipeline operator decided to implement a new SCADA system and worked directly with an integrator and vendor to put it together, without bringing in a SCADA consulting firm. The operator did not develop a formal specification for the system, resulting in no organized table of requirements for performance and regulatory compliance. Rather, the operator simply trusted that the integrator would provide a well-functioning system. Midway through the implementation, it became clear that there were problems, but there were no formal or concrete requirements to point to when discussing inadequacies with the integrator, so the time spent was wasted.
In the end, UTSI was hired to develop a proper specification and make recommendations to get the project back on track. The operator shared that if UTSI had been hired initially, a significant amount of time and money would have been saved despite the contracting costs. SCADA systems are delicate, and each implementation is unique and requires fulfilling specific requirements, making it extremely important for these projects start out with a clear timeline and set of performance requirements. UTSI has experience implementing many different systems with various operators, granting them the ability to address challenges before they become issues. This can immediately offset contracting costs by eliminating the costs of project hiccups and difficulties.
This story illustrates the importance of clearly representing the needs and interests of the operator. While it may seem easier to rely solely on a system integrator, it is not always the best idea to leave integrators and vendors to their own devices. There are five important reasons why major energy companies should hire an ICS consulting firm when executing a SCADA or DCS project.
Consultants should be well-versed on appropriate products in the relevant market with no inherent bias based on expertise. This is a major factor when recognizing the difference between Consultants and System Integrators. System Integrators often specialize in one or two types of systems, causing them to consistently recommend the same products regardless of their customer’s unique goals. A reasonable analogy: If an integrator’s only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. A consultant will make system recommendations based entirely upon the customer’s needs. A good consultant will recommend the best tool for the specific job. There is no “best” SCADA system, as the choice hinges upon requirements, objectives, and goals from key stakeholders. Some organizations prefer a highly customizable system while others prefer more generic systems that are easier to run and maintain. Therefore, it is essential to use a consultant with strong knowledge of all reasonably appropriate products and the drive to identify these goals and match them with the applicable product and setup.
A strong consulting team has faced a wide variety of challenges. Successful approaches from previous projects can often be adopted for customers facing similar challenges. Customers also receive the benefit of an entire firm’s worth of experience, as individual consultants can draw upon the knowledge of the rest of their firm at no additional cost to the customer. Essentially, if a customer is facing a problem, there is a good chance that it’s been solved it in the past and similar solutions can apply. The in-house control systems team is highly proficient at managing the current system that they have in place. However, they tend to lack the experience of taking on major, transformative projects to either transition entirely to a new system or to perform a major upgrade or expansion. With a professional project management consulting team, customers gain access to a team that has worked on the implementation and upgrade of many diverse systems along with the intimate knowledge only gained through the hands-on experience of these systems. In-house staff often have experience in only one product and often have trouble reasonably assessing alternatives––not because they are incompetent, but because they are only attuned to the system they have in place.
Especially in cases of merging or expanding SCADA systems, there are often many different stakeholders pushing for varying solutions, procedures, and approaches based on the goals of their team. A consulting firm is free of organizational bias, and will recommend appropriate procedures and solutions based on the holistic needs of the customer. Sometimes concessions need to be made based on budgetary or other requirements, and a consulting firm can help to implement the optimal solution based on these requirements and limitations. This can be an especially pertinent issue when two pipeline operating companies merge or a pipeline is acquired, as the two organizations may have quite disparate systems and operating procedures. A third-party consultant can make recommendations from an outside perspective without bias and has strong knowledge of how both companies and their peers in the industry operate.
When executing a SCADA project, there are often multiple external organizations involved in the acquisition and implementation of the system. This can include vendors who sell the software and hardware comprising the system, system integrators who take part in the actual system implementation, and regulatory compliance experts who seek to ensure that the proposed solution meets all regulatory standards. When partnering with a consulting firm, customers can be confident that the consulting team has negotiated extensively with these groups in the past and has a strong understanding of where their strengths and weaknesses lie. These groups are sometimes not forthcoming about limitations in their products and expertise, and these limitations are only discovered once the project has commenced and reached a point of no return. Customers can count on consulting companies to be proactive in exploring these limitations and essentially holding these groups to their word, ensuring that they are capable of delivering what is required.
Expanding the Customer’s Team Capacity with SCADA Consulting
The in-house controls team in most major organizations is quite capable of running and maintaining the systems that they have in place. They intimately know how the system functions and spend their working hours ensuring that it is functioning properly. They often do not, however, have the expertise, experience, or time to design a new system, talk to vendors, discover all associated needs and requirements, check a new system’s ability to meet regulatory requirements, gather and negotiate with integrators, and manage a project and implement the new system themselves. Hiring an outside consulting firm significantly increases how much a control room team can accomplish. A contracted consulting firm can dedicate the required time and resources to implement the new SCADA solution without jeopardizing day-to-day operations. Additionally, a SCADA consulting team will accomplish the project faster and cheaper than the in-house team, as they know the ins-and-outs of implementation rather than having to discover them as they execute the project.
The need for a highly reliable SCADA system has never been more important than it is today. While it’s tempting to solely contract an integrator, the consequences of an inadequate system, lost money and time are simply not worth it.
Reach out to UTSI today and let us help you navigate the best solutions for your unique needs.