Your job isn’t done after you send out an RFQ. These 5 tips will help you choose the best automation partner.
You’ve spent years trying to get this new automation project in your capital budget, and you just heard from management that this is your year! So after months of planning and meetings, you have developed a detailed bid specification for what this project requires and investigated what will work best to accommodate all of your team’s requirements and wishes.
The bid specification is quite impressive; it lays out exactly what you need for your new automation equipment in very specific detail. You work with your purchasing department to send the bid specification in a request for quotation to four different automation providers. All of the hard work is behind you; now all you have to do is sit back and wait for the proposals to roll in and choose the best candidate.
With all of the time spent on the specification, this should be easy–just choose the lowest bid. But when you get the proposals in, you realize maybe the decision isn’t so easy. You have four different proposals from four different suppliers. They have kept with the “theme” of the bid specification but have all taken liberties and strayed from the specification that you worked so hard developing. Why couldn’t they just follow your design to the letter? Why did they have to go and change it?
Here are a few tips in helping wade through the different suppliers and ultimately make the right decision for the best solution and best provider for your project.
1. Make sure all bidders are qualified (check references)
This sounds pretty obvious, but you might be surprised how some folks get involved with projects. Sometimes there are companies touting themselves as advanced automation firms that are little more than a shop with a few pieces of equipment and a welder!
Have any of the proposed companies done business with your company before? If so, how did they do? Do an honest assessment of their previous project. Were they done on time and under budget? Did they effectively communicate project progress and milestones throughout? Do a good job of communicating good and bad news?
In automation projects, there is sometimes a “dust settling” period. How did their equipment work after the dust settled 6-9 months down the road? Did they support their equipment and react quickly when issues did arise? If they have not worked with you previously, ask them for references of similar projects or industries they have worked on. Sometimes if their customers are competitors to your company that might be a ticklish situation, but use your best judgment and don’t be afraid to ask tough questions about the company’s performance.
2. Make sure all proposals meet your bid specification
First off, make sure their proposal meets what you laid out in black and white in your proposal. You and your team spent a lot of time putting this specification together for a reason. Read carefully past the “fluff” of the quote to find out exactly what each vendor is providing in the “meat and potatoes” of their automation and equipment description. If they did stray from your specification…
3. Make sure your bid specification is what you need for your application
Sometimes we get tunnel vision and only think about what has worked in the past or what we have seen at other companies. You have invited these vendors in to quote this project because they are the automation experts. Do not discount their ideas if they stray from your specification; take a close look to see if they have a better way. It is also good to share some of these ideas with your team. Sometimes there are specific reasons different ideas will not work due to your specific processes or other constraints that are not obvious to the vendor. You will need to make the determination if that is the case.
4. Evaluate the alternative designs that stray from your specification
If there are alternative designs, take a close look to see if they are different just for the case of being different. If you put yourself in the bidder’s shoes, they know they are bidding against 3-4 other firms. If they all bid the exact same thing–to your specification–it just boils it down to a pricing exercise. It is in their best interest to come up with new and creative ways to differentiate themselves from their competition.
Many times this is how new projects are won–creative and innovative solutions that are not exactly what was asked for. Many times these new ideas save money in the end, again because they are experts in the automation field and know the most efficient ways to design and control equipment. Ultimately, to stray from the specification, the alternate designs must provide simplicity, save significant cost, and/or add functionality to your operation.
5. Are the companies on solid financial footing?
There are many tools to check credit ratings on prospective vendors. You can check with your accounting department, but one of the industry standards is Dunn & Bradstreet (D&B). You can also ask for supplier references to make sure they pay their bills on time. Based on the size, scope, and risk of the project, you might also require a letter of credit, but this is rare. You cannot rely on a company’s historical track record alone. In these turbulent financial times, you have to do your homework to make sure this company is in good financial standing in the present.
Using these tips, you should be able to narrow the field and make your decision easier. Then the fun begins as you select your preferred vendor and start down the path to engineering kickoff meetings to nail down all the final assumptions and documentation. From there, your baby will start to take shape, and in no time, you will have a new automated system that you have been dreaming of for years. Good luck!