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So, You Want to Be a ... Automation- and Control-Systems Integrator

Nov. 9, 2016
Control-systems integrators are the smart people who enable building systems to communicate with one another and with end users.

Before investing effort into becoming a control-systems integrator, be sure you have the stomach for it. There is no sense in learning to become a sea captain if you are sick every moment you spend on the water. With that in mind, let’s begin by exploring who integrators are and why they are important, and then you can figure out if you have the right stuff.

Control-systems integrators, or, simply, integrators, are the smart people who enable building systems to communicate with one another and with end users. These technological “captains” of our industry not only guide data from many systems to a single port for end users, they preside over the weddings of odd couples such as lighting panels and air handlers.

Because a good integrator is hard to find, my company has developed a competency profile for integrators and identified skills to look for when hiring. We found product knowledge, industry knowledge, and advanced knowledge of information technology are necessary, but, alone, not enough. These skills are critically important, but the superior performers are defined by exceptional interpersonal and customer-service skills.

The integrator fills a void created when end users began to demand visibility and interoperability from their buildings’ systems. Twenty years ago, when direct digital controls started to displace pneumatics as the control system of choice, facility managers fantasized about integrated systems. They imagined a time when they could access their building systems from home and adjust a single schedule that would control HVAC and lighting.

Since those days, the dream of integrated systems has been realized. Manufacturers have adopted open protocols such as BACnet and Modbus to facilitate the exchange of information between different vendors and trades. Thankfully, facility managers have kept on dreaming. Each new generation of control system promises new features and creates a new set of expectations to be met. The fact various systems within a building now are integrated, combined with the rapid pace of change, means integrators must know a little about a lot of subjects. The best technical people in the industry are “tinkerers” who never stop learning. Experience has shown a solid technical background in computer science or electrical engineering provides a good foundation.

Another change that has given rise to the integrator is the control system’s move from the boiler room to the front office. Today, a casual user can interact with a building’s control system through a Web page or a smartphone. This visibility has led the control system to a place of prominence in the minds and on the desks of facility managers. Current-generation control systems often are used to monitor the operations of mission-critical assets, such as data centers and laboratories. This exposure to a facility’s critical infrastructure puts the integrator in a role in which the consequences of failure are great. Customers are keenly aware of these consequences and, thus, place a great deal of trust in the integrator.

Project managers, customers, and third-party vendors put a high price on the technical skills of an integrator. Being technologically competent, however, is not enough to be a good integrator. To rank in this field, you have to be a relationship expert. I have worked with some of the best technical people in the industry, and they were not the best integrators. The most successful integrators are people who know what needs to be done and can get it done by working with other stakeholders. Good integrators have relationships with third-party vendors, subcontractors, end users, and information-technology departments.

Unlike most construction trades, integrators cannot simply do tasks and move on. They are the “responsible adults” who will not abandon ship in rough seas. They stay until the gritty end to ensure all of the systems in a building are working together to create a seamless user experience. Integrators are the last to leave a project and usually the first to be called when something goes wrong. It is not uncommon for integrators to field questions unrelated to the system they installed because end users consider them experts on many building systems. As a result, end-user satisfaction can be tipped to positive or negative in the final weeks and days of a project by the actions of an integrator. Repeat business, which is the lifeblood of a controls contractor, hinges on customer satisfaction.

If all of this is agreeable to you, congratulations; you are a member of a very small pool of candidates, and you have access to a lucrative and interesting career. There are many opportunities for those of you with the right stuff to be a control-systems integrator.

Steve Joanis is engineering manager for ENE Systems Inc., a controls contractor serving large commercial and institutional customers in New England and a member of the InsideIQ Building Automation Alliance, an international alliance of independent building- and facility-automation companies representing common automation- and security-system platforms. He also is a controls instructor at The Peterson School in Westwood, Mass.

Did you find this article useful? Send comments and suggestions to Executive Editor Scott Arnold at [email protected].