1 August 2002
Tough times boosting business
Last in a three-part series on control system integration and integrators, based on a report commissioned by the Control System Integrators Association, a North America organization for control system integrators.
By Norman OíLeary
If the formative days of control system integration went by unnoticed, if not unheralded, the industryís across-the-board role worldwide in industrial automation assures its imprint in the foreseeable future.
Among trends shaping this healthy outlook for firms engaged in control system integration are the following:
- Downsizing and eliminating in-house engineering staffs. Cutbacks, for example, of plant engineering and maintenance engineering personnel has led to outsourcing maintenance, repair, and operations projects to control system integration firms that can fill these engineering roles.
- Continuing consolidation of major automation and control vendors and architectural/engineering firms is making available a steady stream of skilled control system integration professionals.
- Linking factory floor automation and enterprisewide connectivity into manufacturing execution systems (MESs). The proliferation of new, less expensive software tools is making control MES available to smaller companies and creating a corresponding increase in the market for control system integrators (CSIs) to perform control MES integration.
- Establishing a formalized program of "best practices and benchmarks" by which to measure a control system integratorís performance in several key business areas. The Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) adapted these standards and made them integral to a third-party-audited "registration" process that offers CSIs a means to evaluate and continuously improve their business. It also provides manufacturers, for the first time, with an industry-specific means to identify, qualify, evaluate, select, and manage CSIs.
- Increased marketing by automation manufacturers to system integrators, recognizing the CSIís role as a customer, not simply a distribution channel.
- Increased importance of the information technology (IT) function in the decision-making process for system integration projects. Convergence of process engineering and enterprise IT functions has elevated the control system integration firm beyond the factory floor. Today, systems integrators serve as not only the vehicle to perform the integration tasks but also the intermediary and "translator" between the engineering and IT functions within an enterprise. This role augurs well for the future, as control system integration becomes more oriented to total enterprise integration.
Two other trends are extremely important to the future of CSIs: fieldbus technologies and the movement toward open systems.
One of the technology issues that made control system integration practical was the ability to provide, using PC-compatible human-machine interface software, complete plant floor control systems from off-the-shelf components. The current movement toward all-digital communications between the field instrumentation and the control system will work again to make the integration process simpler and less expensive.
As fieldbus technology converges toward an industrialized version of the Ethernet standard, using TCP/IP or its successors as a universal and transparent data transfer protocol, devices will become considerably closer to the type of "plug and play" commonly accepted (and expected) in the enterprise IT market.
The movement toward open systems is the other side of the fieldbus connectivity issue. Completely open systems allow CSIs to maximize their value to their clients by providing exactly the system called for by the project parameters, rather than trying to cut and fit a particular proprietary system to a specific project.
The future of control system integration will benefit from standardizing field instrument sizes, specifications, and communications, as well as from open systems that permit any desired configuration.
The confluence of technology, market forces, and professional systems integrators suggests robust systems integration opportunities worldwide.
The full text of the report, "The Market for Control System Integrators," is available at www.controlsys.com. IC
Norman OíLeary is executive director of CSIA. He has more than three decades of experience in control and automation, including 20 years with General Electric Co.
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