Automation engineers spend a lot of money. Instruments and control systems are expensive and in many cases the project manager is entirely dependent on his or her automation engineers to select the best equipment for the job. The best automation engineers make every effort to keep abreast of the latest equipment offerings, but they can never know everything so they often turn to the vendors for expertise.
The engineer/vendor relationship can be close in all forms of project engineering, but a close relationship is particularly important in automation due to the high rate of product development and improvement. While such a relationship can be beneficial to both parties, it can also be a source of serious problems if all dealings are not kept honest, open, and above reproach. The large amount of money involved can be a huge temptation for ethical misbehavior.
My first mentor, Henry Hecht, had a vendor offer him a new boat if Henry would grant the vendor the sole source contract for the control valves on a large expansion project. Henry promptly threw him out of his office and banned the vendor from the plant. Unfortunately, engineers sometimes fall victim to such offers and often pay a high price for their misdeeds.
In comparison to Henry’s experience, I have had vendors who were true partners. I could count on them to provide technically valuable and unbiased advice, fair pricing, and excellent service and support after the sale. A vendor representative once literally got up at 2 AM, tossed a valve into his car, and drove an hour and a half to deliver it to my plant because we were facing an emergency and were on the verge of an unplanned and extremely costly shutdown.
Concept: Throughout your career you will deal with a multitude of vendors. Some are quintessential used car salesmen, promising anything to clinch the sale. Others are straight up, truthfully revealing the strengths and weaknesses of their products and offering fair pricing. When you encounter such a vendor, it is wise to foster the relationship.
There will be times in your career when you will need an instrument replaced or a spare part on an emergency basis and those vendor relationships will allow you to get equipment and support when nobody else can.
Details: As mentioned in the opening, vendor relationships are crucial to the success of automation engineers. Despite herculean effort on your part, it will be nearly impossible to keep up with the rapid pace of product development, and vendors are a primary source of technical information. Beyond that, technical advances have made instrumentation critical for plant operation and an unexpected failure can cripple or even stop production until the instrument is replaced or repaired. In such late night emergencies (no instrument EVER fails during the day shift!) a strong vendor relationship can make the difference between starting up in an hour and starting up in a few days.
Of course, the vendor is dependent on the engineer for sales and every order increases his bottom line. In the best case scenario, both parties value each other and both benefit. The engineer gets sound technical advice, solid service and support, and a good product at a fair price. The vendor gets significant repeat business and a decent profit. Unfortunately, it takes willingness and effort on the part of both parties to get there. Each must be honest and open and both must believe that the relationship benefits each of them equally. If the engineer (or his company) is constantly squeezing the vendor for lower prices, then the vendor will start playing pricing games to get his profit back or find other clients who are easier to manage. Similarly, if the vendor is concerned only about short term profit then he will say anything to get the order and not be concerned about service or support in the long run.
Watch-Outs: Beware of any vendor who bad-mouths his competition and spends more time disparaging the competitor’s products than selling his own. If a sales person has a good product to sell, he or she will rarely even mention the competition.
Also beware of getting too comfortable with a vendor. If a vendor relationship is too good, there is an incentive to enter a sole source arrangement. While this arrangement may offer good pricing and service in the short run, the price breaks usually deteriorate over time, as do service and support. Try to have two strong vendors for each product. This will generate enough revenue to sustain both while keeping competition healthy.
Regardless of the relationship, keep project bidding above-board and transparent. Make certain each vendor has the same information and the bids are evaluated simultaneously and impartially. There can be a temptation to “help out” a favored vendor by revealing other bids or letting them “re-bid.” Avoid this behavior at all costs.
Exceptions: None. Vendors are only the enemy when you treat them as such.
Insight: Over the course of years, many sales people and engineers ultimately become good friends. There is nothing wrong with that conceptually, but it is important to maintain (and be seen to maintain) a solid line between work and personal time. Leave discussions of bids, projects, etc. at the office.
Rule of Thumb: An engineer is as dependent on the vendors as they are dependent upon the engineer. Foster relationships with honest vendors and keep all bidding strictly impartial. To be a successful engineer or project manager, you have to develop relationships with vendors just like you do with customers, co-workers and subordinates.
Hunter Vegas, P.E., holds a B.S.E.E. degree from Tulane University and an M.B.A. from Wake Forest University. His job titles have included instrument engineer, production engineer, instrumentation group leader, principal automation engineer, and unit production manager. In 2001, he joined Avid Solutions, Inc., as an engineering manager and lead project engineer, where he works today. Vegas has executed nearly 2,000 instrumentation and control projects over his career, with budgets ranging from a few thousand to millions of dollars. He is proficient in field instrumentation sizing and selection, safety interlock design, electrical design, advanced control strategy, and numerous control system hardware and software platforms.