May 2008

Integrators' role key to automation growth

Editor's note: The Control Systems Integrators Association (CSIA) has a new chairman this month, Ed Diehl, a co-founder of Concept Systems, Inc., Albany, Ore. Diehl and InTech Editor Gregory Hale traded questions and answers about the role of the system integrator and how it relates to manufacturers.

InTech: Systems integrators have taken on an incredibly important role in the automation industry. Just how much has the integrators' function changed over the past few years?

Diehl: We see even more reliance on integrators today. As end users have continued to downsize their technical project staff, they depend on integrators to handle the workload. At the same time, the technology is changing at a faster rate then ever before, making it difficult for end users to maintain competence with the latest technologies. They depend on integrators to know the latest and greatest technologies.

InTech: What do you see the role evolving into over the next three to five years?

Diehl: The trend has been to rely more on integrators at the initial stages of a project to help develop and specify the control architecture and approach. This is more of a consultative role and is a direct result of the end users reduction in project staff. Instead of end users developing control specifications, they are coming to integrators with very loosely defined needs and expecting us to help them develop automation solutions. Rather than responding to bid specifications, integrators are helping end users solve problems by defining their current and future automation needs.

InTech: You are taking on the role of chairman of the Control Systems Integrators Association (CSIA) this month. Surely integrators know what benefits your organization brings to the table, but what does your organization do to aid manufacturers?

Diehl: By establishing a set of best practices for control system integrators, and providing a certification process, which measures performance of member companies against these standards, we have set the bar for the industry. We understand that manufacturers take a risk every time they make an investment in automation to improve their quality, increase production, or enter new markets. Using a CSIA certified integrator is one essential step in minimizing that risk. Not only do certified integrators demonstrate the ability to run their projects, they also demonstrate solid business practices and a strong commitment to their customers and the industry.

InTech: With Baby Boomers getting ready to leave the workforce, do you see the integrators' taking on a more active role in the manufacturing environment?

Diehl: This is one of the reasons that the cost of labor in the U.S. is increasing. U.S. manufacturers must automate in order to remain competitive in the world market. This, combined with their own lack of internal engineering staff, means that manufacturers are ever more reliant on integrators to maintain their competitive advantage. As integrators, we play a key role in maintaining a strong U.S. manufacturing base. Many industries that have avoided automation to date will either automate or see their products being manufactured elsewhere.

InTech: Do you see engineers becoming more specialized or more generalized?

Diehl: In the integration industry, engineers are more generalized today then they have ever been. Today's integration engineer must be a salesperson, hardware designer, software developer, and HMI developer. They must understand both the process and the technologies used to control it. They must be as good at communicating with the customer as they are in implementing the technology. They need to be the estimator, designer, developer, startup engineer, and service/support technician. I firmly believe that control system integration today is one of the most challenging and rewarding engineering disciplines available.

InTech: What do you see as being the biggest issue facing manufacturers today?

Diehl: Manufacturers have more automation choices available to them then ever before. The key is to get the best return on their automation investment. With the technology in continuous flux this isn't always an easy decision to make. Where should they make an automation investment? What technology should they use? How should it be implemented? How long will it be serviced and supported? Who should integrate it? Part of an integrator's role is to provide automation advice and consultation to help manufacturers plan for their future success.

InTech: Do you see manufacturers truly communicating across all platforms through to the enterprise?

Diehl: This varies greatly between industries, and even among companies within the same industry. For the most part, manufacturers still have a long way to go with integrating their enterprise. Most manufacturers are automating 'island by island,' with very little if any interaction between the automation units. It is the exception, rather than the rule, to see work orders automatically flow to the production floor, and to see production optimized across numerous process/machine centers.

Even if the manufacturer is using different automation platforms throughout their facility, the technology is here today to tie these disparate systems together and let them share information.

I don't believe most customers perceive the value they will see by integrating across the enterprise. We worked with a West Coast plant to implement a plant-wide OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) and data historian system, which the plant uses to improve efficiencies and target specific areas for investment. 

Even though this was a great success, it took several years to convince a sister plant on the East Coast, producing the same product, to make the investment. I believe it takes a bit of a visionary to really see the value and be willing to risk the investment.