Assessing System Integrators in the Mining and Metals Industry

April 24, 2023
Operating in a technically and physically demanding field requires tremendous coordination and a team of knowledgeable and experienced personnel. Here’s how to determine if an integrator is right for your project.

Typical remote locations of the) industry often make it difficult for in-house resources to stay on top of aging infrastructure, evolving technology and continuous improvement projects. Following are five challenges we see facing many organizations in the MMM industries that can be addressed with the help of a knowledgeable system integrator.

Aging infrastructure. Active MMM operations continuously process with limited planned downtime scheduled to maintain existing plant equipment. This level of production combined with the incredibly high cost of downtime often makes upgrading obsolete but functional, equipment a difficult decision. That is, until it breaks and causes unplanned downtime. Unplanned control system failure without readily available replacements creates enormous losses in production, often greatly surpassing the initial cost of modernization.

The cost of downtime. Unplanned downtime and lost production plague everyone, but not equally. A recent survey of 72 major multinational industrial and manufacturing companies revealed that MMM and other heavy-industrial companies lose 23 hours/month, equating to 1.2 million hours a year across the sector. At $187,000/hour, this totals $225 billion annually. Much of this downtime can be prevented by having access to the right experienced technical resources to help identify unsupported hardware and software.

Labor and technical support. Due to the remote nature of mine sites, skilled labor retention and the distances involved in sourcing outside technical support can present real challenges. Quite often, site-specific knowledge is not well documented and only possessed by a few key personnel.

Working in a highly technical and automated field. The mining industry uses incredibly technical and streamlined manufacturing processes that rely heavily on complex automation and connected operations. Given the size and scale of a typical operation, detailed workflows and procedures should be standardized with emphasis on constant improvement. Real-time tracking of mobile resources and critical process equipment health must be standard practice to minimize operation disruptions.

Safety and security. Workplace safety and security are a priority at mine sites due to the presence of caustic, combustible or hazardous materials. Couple that with massive moving equipment and you can see why safety is the top priority. Industry-specific training, such as that required by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), only scratches the surface of the challenges involved in ensuring an incident-free, efficient worksite. Therefore, it is critical that outside partners understand the industry’s unique challenges and regulations. Additionally, the need to harden, segment and protect onsite control networks is becoming ever more critical as cybersecurity incidents continue to rise.

Integrator assessment

Given these challenges, how should companies in the MMM industry go about assessing intergrators to provide help? A good place to start is by asking questions such as: Does the integrator have a long history in the MMM segment with successful reference projects? And do they have industrial experience beyond MMM?

These questions are important because having a partner with experience in a variety of industries can result in cross-pollination of solutions, best practices and engineering expertise. While broad experience is important, it is also crucial to determine if they know your specific industry. Having an experienced partner who is familiar with plant processes and has managed similar projects in the past minimizes risk and reduces time spent utilizing facility personnel to manage and oversee automation projects.

Identifying the right partner can provide broad expertise over many highly technical domains. To help determine an integrator’s level expertise, ask questions about: What level of system solution diversity you can expect from the integrator? Are they limited to PLC and SCADA programming? Can they support instrumentation and telemetry? Are they experienced in combustion controls and burner safety? Can they fabricate UL-rated control panels locally? Do they have a staff of dedicated technicians and engineers ready to provide onsite emergency support? Do they have dedicated PMP certified project managers to handle coordination and ensure the project stays on schedule?

Industry certifications should also be noted. Find out if the integrator has staff that holds industry-standard certifications such as CSIA, UL508/698, ISO9000, MSHA, ISA, CSI and PMP? A great place to start when evaluating system integrators is with CSIA certified member integrators. CSIA certified members are vetted through an application process, adhere to industry best practices and have completed a certification process that includes passing an extensive audit against CSIA best practices.

A key distinction between manufacturer engineering services and an independent system integrator is the ability to evaluate the best solution honestly and objectively for the challenge at hand. Can the integrator outline the values and drawbacks of competing similar products to streamline the decision-making process? Can you count on them to readily source a variety of materials and be ready to recommend alternatives? Do they act first as a trusted partner, then as a vendor?

Also be sure to ask about the integrator’s vendor certifications. Does the integrator hold registered or certified status with the manufacturers they support? Each manufacturer requires a rigorous vetting of integrators to achieve partner status, typically through documented training and a broad history of verified project successes. These partners typically have exclusive support contracts that allow them priority support as well as in-house resources not available to other firms. These certifications provide an easy way to verify the integrator possesses the tools and proficiency with the solutions they provide.

Nathan Henderson is a Business Development Engineer at George T. Hall Company, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association(CSIA). For more information about George T. Hall Company, visit its profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange

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