Expertise: A continuous commodity
Integrators still strong in fragile economy; manufacturers most need expertise, partnership
By Ellen Fussell Policastro
Scott Dixon used to work on the manufacturing side of the fence before he became an integrator, so he understands the manufacturer’s plight of searching for just the right integrator to help improve processes.
Partnering is number one in finding the right match. It is important to be sure a company is willing to work with you as a partner and not dump a project in your lap and leave the next day. Now, Dixon is vice president of business development at Entegreat, an integrator specializing in food, beverage, pharmaceutical, mining, and pulp and paper industries, in Birmingham, Ala., so he stays aware of those manufacturing needs as he farms out his own integrator services to manufacturers in need.
“The manufacturer has to own the system once the integrator is gone,” Dixon said. “So it’s essential they look for an integrator who can do that transfer of knowledge—from integrator to manufacturer. “Let’s say I come and put a product tracking system into a manufacturing company so they can do track and trace and genealogy of products from start to finish,” he said. “If they get a bad product at the end of their process, they need to track it through. They’ll be the one to live with that system. So knowledge transfer is essential.”
Of course, manufacturers should look for integrators who have expertise in the processes and technologies for which they will be providing services said Scott Sommer, an automation technology manager in Conshohocken, Penn. “While unit operations may be similar across industries, an understanding of the specific needs of the manufacturer’s industry is essential.”
“I might know everything about that specific system,” Dixon said. “But I might not understand how a paper machine works.” One thing manufacturers are looking for is how well do they [the integrators] understand the business processes? “I can drop in a product tracking system for a paper mill, and take that same system and drop it in a poultry plant, but I’ll do things differently based on their business processes,” he said.
“On the technology side, an understanding of the control system type (PLC, DCS, PAC, distributed I/O, or fieldbus I/O-based) should be the main qualifier,” Sommer said. And finally, “manufacturers should perform due diligence to insure their systems integrators are engaged in ethical, stable, and ongoing business concerns.”
If they want product expertise and direct access to the vendor, then vendor-supplied integrators may be a good choice, said Bryan Singer, principal consultant at Kenexis Consulting Corporation in Pelham, Ala. “But this also assumes a homogenous solution from one vendor. If they have a heterogeneous system, no vendor-supplied integrators, or just prefer a third-party independent source, then other firms are often attractive, and can come at lower rates.”
One risk with integrators, however, is some can have their own way of doing things, Singer said. “They use standards and designs that worked in the past and rely on them to do so in the future so they can have a lower level of technical expertise (at a lower cost) and deploy it over and over. This works sometimes, but as products change and complexities increase, the suitability of these designs is in question and the people onsite may not have the expertise to know why.” This can be dangerous when vendors have recommended deployments or owners have independent requirements and there is not a clear way to ensure design, implementation, and verification of installation are consistent with all these requirements. This heightens the chance of a delayed or unsuccessful startup or error-prone process, he said.
While manufacturers are more inclined to hire expert advice these days, they are also more selective about who they hire for that advice, Sommer said. Specific industry and process experts, those with wide technology and business acumen, and certified technical experts, are definitely in high demand.
“Our customers are requesting process engineering expertise, automation strategy development, OEM vendor management, and value engineering,” Sommer said. “With technology implementation becoming more of a commodity, it is the leadership and big-picture roles they need most. Our customers also need help in determining the bottom-line value of automation projects.”
Who is hiring
Companies that need integrators could be those who have reduced their staff due to financial concerns. “I always told people as a former manufacturer there are three reasons I hire a consultant. One is I don’t have enough staff. [Another] is I could be over-resourced,” Dixon said. “Manufacturing employees could be on a number of other projects when corporate and the general manager come in and say, ‘I need this initiative done.’ So there were too many projects going on.”
Any business that does not maintain its own integration and support staff would benefit from hiring an integrator, Singer said. “Manufacturers often want to do it themselves, and some do just that. But as systems increase in features, driven by customer demand, the complexity goes up,” he said. “It is rare a business today will have all the staff they need to deploy and maintain all the various types of systems available.”
Some plants and businesses work well supporting their own solutions, but increasingly, not even one integration firm can address the potential complexities in modern systems. “One is often needed for the manufacturing applications like MES, historians, etc., while an entirely different set of skills are needed for the process control devices, safety/SIS, industrial network, and security, Singer said. “Integrators help bring expertise to any plant without maintaining every skill in-house.”
Hiring in economic crisis
Before the economy tanked, companies were reducing staff and moving toward lean organizations. “So some of those companies were hiring integrators,” Dixon said. “Today, some companies are putting projects on hold because of the financial pinch. Others aren’t feeling the pinch yet, but they’re waiting for the economy to turn before they jump in and move forward.”
And there are some companies who feel the pinch, but understand a lot of other companies are out there in the same boat—delaying on upgrading their systems—so those companies are taking advantage of this lull. “If competitors aren’t investing, they’ll spend and invest to get out in front, so when the economy takes an upturn, they’ve already taken two steps ahead,” Dixon said.
In today’s economy, manufacturers are more receptive to hiring expert advice if they can do it on a temporary basis since it is not worth the expense of a full-time burden of employment for the expertise, Singer said. In down economies, however, they are reluctant to outsource projects. Some companies would still rather outsource to have variable rather than fixed costs based on needs. “I have noticed increased demand for training of internal resources for companies to do it themselves; just because the economy has slowed doesn’t mean that projects must stop or that regulatory requirements are delayed.”
Manufacturing needs changing
Most manufacturers are looking for manufacturing visibility, but this is especially true in food and beverage. It is important they know where a product is on the shop floor. “Take a chocolate factory, which includes mixing and blending,” Dixon said. “It’s important to know how much of that chocolate is in the bins. Then you have chocolate that goes through a forming process. It’s important to understand where the product is throughout the process and how much of it you have at different stages.” Knowing all this helps the chocolate manufacturer plan well. You want to know when there is a slowdown in operations. If you have lost some product because there was a problem with the quality, you want to know that as soon as possible.
“That’s where we [the integrators] come in from a systems perspective,” Dixon said. “We help implement systems to show them what’s going on down on the shop floor. You can see good quality or low-end quality that’s being thrown away. You can see how much product you have at any one particular stage in the line.”
Government regulations are also a constant part of the mix. Whether it is regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture, or anyone who produces their own power dealing with air emissions, wastewater, or green-house gases, “there are always those government regulatory compliance issues people have to meet,” Dixon said. “So we’re always seeing folks who are looking for ways to get that information more easily—so it’s presentable for auditing purposes. They know all the regulations, it just takes a lot of paperwork and manual entry to gather all the information they need to prove to the FDA they’re complying. We do that through systems to automate the processes so there’s not all that extra paperwork.”
On the other hand, because of all these safety issues, the Obama administration has created a food safety council to look at food safety laws. “Do they need to tighten regulations? Food companies know that regulation tightening is potentially out there,” Dixon said. “So they’ll be looking for help to make sure they’re meeting all those.”
Dixon’s firm is also taking a stronger stance with the toughening laws surrounding green sustainability issues, such as air emissions, water, energy, and greenhouse gases.
“As those companies are trying to meet the dates proposed to them through these government compliance groups, such as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they’re also looking for integrators to come help them—not to understand regulations, but to put systems in place to help them monitor better and take care of those issues when they do arise.”
More savvy manufacturers
Manufacturers understand technology and its benefits more today than five years ago. They are sometimes now looking to integrators and challenging them to push the envelope on how to integrate the technology tools out there to create benefits for their processes. “There are all kinds of mobile units out there,” Dixon said. Companies are wondering, now that they have the systems, how they can go mobile. “They have higher expectations of integrators to help synchronize those tools. Technology companies are trying to stay on the front end of that too.”
But Sommer believes manufacturers’ needs have not changed all that much. “I owned my own systems integration firm from 1990-2000 during the technology explosion that decade, and since have been managing the efforts of systems integrators for large pharmaceutical projects,” Sommer said. “While systems have evolved over the past 20 years, manufacturers are looking for the same thing now as they did then—experienced, qualified engineering support in the industries, processes, and control technologies that the manufacturer is engaged in.”
However, Sommer has noticed manufacturers now are more interested in the specific personnel who will be on their jobs than they were five years ago. “They want stability in the project team (continuity of personnel), documented experience in the processes and systems of interest, and longevity at the particular integrator’s firm (not a new hire at the firm, especially in leadership positions).”
The other thing changing with the times is more companies are investing in Six Sigma and lean manufacturing, which are two popular improvements to reduce waste and variability in their product. “Now they’re looking for systems that can help foster those productivity improvement initiatives,” Dixon said. “That has come more and more to the forefront for us as integrators.”
In fact, the very thing manufacturers need presents some of the bigger challenges for integrators. These include regulatory compliance, industrial networking and performance, process efficiencies and performance—all related to deployment, Singer said. “In the current economic climate, the biggest issues are labor pressures, cost pressures, and delays in projects,” he said.
One interesting consequence of lean manufacturing and disciplines like Six Sigma is there often are few people, a bare minimum, to run a plant, Singer said. “Traditional cost-cutting measures of layoffs, one of the quickest effects to the bottom line, don’t work like they used to. This downturn has resulted in some unusual behaviors not seen before, as companies must seek other measures (stopping upgrades or projects) to cut costs. Before, if the upgrades still had business benefit, layoffs would happen, but contractors would come in to fill the gap at a variable cost and a return-on-investment-driven decision. “This hasn’t happened nearly so much,” Singer said, “resulting in more canceled projects, which means everyone is battening down the hatches at the manufacturer—leaving some integrators with little opportunity.”
What integrators can learn
Learn to listen. “Sometimes as integrators, we come in and assume we have the answer before we get to the details of the problem,” Dixon said. “In that listening, integrators need to learn how to ask questions. If I come and talk to you and ask questions, you might think you know what you need, but as we talk, we might find out you have a different problem, and the solution you thought you needed wasn’t the right one. There could be a different solution that will give you the benefit you needed.”
A manufacturer might say they need help with an efficiency problem on a machine, and the integrator will have an efficiency solution. But after a few questions, the integrator could conclude the manufacturer is really interested in understanding why the machine breaks down, what the cause is, and how they can keep it from breaking down so often.
The second thing is learning change-management skills Dixon said. “Within the information technology world, sometimes people think change-management means documentation processes that take place when you make changes in your system. But I’m talking about people change-management. Learning things like how this solution will impact the people who have to use it. What kind of training will they need? Or will they have the time and capacity now to learn it? Or are they too change-saturated now? Are there too many things going on?” Without taking into account the people who will use the system, you could get short-lived benefits because you implemented without buy-in.
Dixon talked of one instance whereby a paper company had a product tracking solution. After a few years, the data in the system did not match up physically with what was happening on the floor. “We thought the system was bad, and we should replace it. So we started investigating, and we found out it wasn’t the system at all. The reality was this was a place where there was a lot of job movement. You might work on something for six months then go to another job. Because there was a lot of movement, we found out people were not getting adequately trained. So they didn’t know what they were supposed to do in the system. Say employ X trains employ Y how to do that job. Two or three people did the original training; X is just teaching Y what he thinks is right. But Y is doing something wrong, so he’s putting bad data in the system. When this happens over long periods of time, you find out you’re getting data that is no good. It was simply a matter of no training plan in place to support these folks as they move from job to job.”
Training, certifications, diversifications, vendor relationships, and partnerships are all important skills to attain for marketing and credibility, Singer said. But you need to be careful of form over function. “Marketing is easy, but we work in a very practical field. If you cannot deliver efficient, cost effective, repeatable, and clear value, you will fail as an integrator in today’s economy.”
Soft skills are also important, Singer said. “Often an integrator is stuck between the vendor and the owner, and it is not always clear who is responsible if something isn’t working right, which can, does, and will happen.” Integrators must have effective communications, mediation, and negotiation skills, as well as policies and procedures that help people know what they should or should not say and do in the face of an angry customer. “Jobs and relationships with companies have been permanently lost over one miscommunication between an integrator resource and an angry customer.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellen Fussell Policastro is the associate editor of InTech. Her e-mail is email@example.com.
Three musts in selecting an integrator
By Bryan Singer
The term “integrator” can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. It can be a team from a vendor sent to deliver a solution, a large- or small-scale official integration business, or an independent consultant. But one thing is for sure; manufacturers must base their selection criteria on their needs. Here is a list of three musts to consider when selecting an integrator for your next project:
Technical expertise: Is this the integrator’s first shot on this system? Be wary of software and hardware developers masquerading as integrators; product specialists should develop product and support deployment, and experienced integrators should know the plant environment and challenges of deploying a system; they are very different disciplines. Developers often are used to reloading, deleting, reconfiguring, and starting/stopping their solutions whenever they want during development. This same approach works great in development, but can be disastrous during deployment.
Qualifications: Are the personnel highly trained and experienced, or are they junior technicians? Depending on system complexity and cost controls, either may be a good choice, but with the lower priced options.
Support: If it is a vendor integrator or large integration firm, do they have local offices? How quickly can they respond to a site issue? If they are local integrators, do they have the technical expertise to solve difficult problems? Some manufacturers make cost decisions to use local help or small firms because they are cheaper. Never make this decision without an honest assessment of their technical capabilities to ensure support they provide will get the plant up and running quickly again.
Bottom line, selecting an integrator must take into consideration your tolerance for downtime, costs controls, need for support, and the complexity of your solution. Evaluate these against the list of potential integrators. There are cases for and against each type of integrator for a given situation. Know the requirements of the situation first.
I had firsthand experience with this as a vendor where we had local integrators who were much cheaper than our resources, but less qualified. These resulted in extended startups, lots of misconfigurations and errors, and overrun costs in the long run. There were also situations where the integrators were actually far better than our resources for a given product or system, or we only had product specialists to assist in deployment, and the local integrators were more experienced and capable at deploying these systems.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bryan Singer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is principal consultant at Kenexis Consulting Corporation in Pelham, Ala. He is co-chair of ISA99.