May 2009

Techniques for system integration

One method used for integrating complex systems is to treat it as a project in a laboratory environment.

With adequate resources, time, and funding, most integration issues can be eventually resolved. This is the route most favored by occasional integrators. At low volumes, any investment in generalized tools and techniques is often not justified, so the cost structure of each project leans towards a high variable cost.

Large-scale manufacturers prefer a fundamentally different cost structure that allows setup and tools development expenses to spread out to a large volume of systems thereby driving down overall cost of integration.

Certain mass-customization techniques lend themselves very well to resolving high-volume system integration challenges.

Compatibility matrix

Not every product in the catalog is going to work with every single other product for every single function. The resultant compatibility matrix is often complex, more than what a linear document like a catalog can effectively manage.

A "system configurator" or a "product advisor" is the tool of choice to manage the rule base that determines compatibility.

A System Configurator provides a mechanism to consistently capture the most suitable configuration for an application.

A well-designed advisor also has the additional benefit of providing non-manual expert guidance for product selection.

Installation and testing

The mechanical assembly of a system is time consuming and tedious. A supplier used to large volume systems manufacturing will probably be more efficient at mechanical assembly than a small shop by utilizing efficient material handling and industrial engineering techniques.

However, the biggest difference in installation between a system manufacturing setup and a laboratory environment is in the use of automated software installation tools.

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With the right kind of scripting and development, installers operate and are useful in an automated and silent fashion over the network minimizing user intervention.

For example, if the software installation process takes 45 minutes, it may only require operator involvement for 5 minutes, causing a nine-fold reduction in labor expense compared to a completely attended installation in a laboratory environment.

Understanding product testing, for software during development and hardware during manufacturing, can optimize the test coverage for system integration, minimizing redundant overlap. Use of automated tools using state of the art testing framework minimizes cost and provides production line repeatability to the quality of system level testing.

Documentation and recovery

The goal of integration is to minimize startup time out of the box as well as in the future in case of a catastrophic software field failure. Automated tools to generate high quality documentation provide a professional edge to you and your customers.

The configuration information generated from the system configurator can travel with the system all the way from installation, testing, and documentation generation to provide consistent deliverables at each stage every time. It also enables low cost ways to deliver recovery media, whether in a protected partition in the hard drive itself or on shippable media in case of field failures to recover to a known, good shipping configuration.

Mass customization style

The art of system integration has been around for a long time; however, in many cases, the low volumes a typical system integrator sees tend to perpetuate it as an art form.

There are many complex integration tasks, especially in dealing with products from multiple vendors, best left to flexible manual processes.

However, increasingly, there are situations where the end user can leverage the expertise of larger suppliers' expertise at a fraction of the cost of manual integration.

Source: This analysis of techniques and the mass customization of systems integration comes to InTech from National Instruments (www.ni.com).