System Integrators Need to Embrace the Internet of Things

April 27, 2016
Though many at this year’s CSIA Executive Conference seemed skeptical about a concept they see as more hype than substance, they have an opportunity to be the connectivity experts that manufacturers will need.

Not too surprisingly, the Internet of Things (IoT) and digitalization were hot topics at this year’s CSIA Executive Conference in Puerto Rico last week. I think it’s fair to say, though, that many system integrators are not convinced that IoT and its industrial cousin (IIoT) are much more than overblown marketing terms designed to get them to buy more automation and control products. Skepticism was running high.

It could be, at least in part, that system integrators—like many of their customers on the plant floor—do not really understand what benefits and opportunities IoT affords. It is many things to many people, and there seemed to be a fair bit of confusion about what it should mean to industry, and whether system integrators should be embracing this connected world or running in fear.

Perhaps the most telling period during the week came when the conference broke out into what CSIA termed “unconferences”—two-hour participatory discussions and debates around key topics rather than formal presentations. At one such discussion, designed to help integrators learn more about IoT service opportunities, the room was packed to the gills, and yet barely more than a handful of integrators were in attendance. The interest in the topic seemed to come primarily from automation vendors wanting either to profess the benefits of their IoT offerings or get a better handle on how to get through to those system integrators. Demand was high for the few system integrators in the room to give their perspective.

One of the most helpful was Luigi De Bernardini, CEO at Italian integrator Autoware and a frequent contributor to the CSIA blog space at In fact, De Bernardini has written at least a couple times in recent months about IIoT, including a post this week about what to expect from compatibility efforts between Plattform Industrie 4.0 and the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC).

Breaking in on a lengthy and circuitous—and, frankly, not particularly helpful—preliminary discussion during the unconference about what IoT is and isn’t, De Bernardini offered a reasonable perspective: “IoT is a component of smart manufacturing or Industry 4.0. It’s very simple and not really new, and is just enabling us to take the right decision at the right time from the right people,” he said. “The big difference is that the right time is changing. The right time used to be days or weeks or months. Now it’s hours.”

De Bernardini also clarified, “It’s not just connecting to the PLC and exchanging data. We’ve been doing that for 20 years. It’s something more.”

That “something more” is not only the understanding of the safest and most effective way to connect systems and devices, but also the analytical tools to make sense of all the data and use it to optimize production operations. Manufacturers looking to embark on an IoT journey are increasingly looking outward for help on creating a system that will bring what can be substantial benefits in efficiency, uptime and more. Automation suppliers are being called on to provide more turnkey solutions, but this is also a prime opportunity for control system integrators to get involved and be the needed experts on connectivity, cybersecurity, Big Data, cloud computing, etc.

During a CSIA panel discussion about what’s important to end users when working with system integrators, Raj Batra, president of Siemens Digital Factory (and panel moderator) turned the discussion to IoT deployment and the promise that lies there.

“That’s the future. It’s going to be massive, and it’s going to impact every single place, starting with your home,” said Ruben Hernandez, site services manager for Roche Operations, a pharmaceutical manufacturer in Ponce, Puerto Rico. “Now it’s going into manufacturing, too; it’s going to go into science, and the healthcare industry. It’s here to stay.”

Hernandez pointed to one example that shows the value that system integrators can bring to the IoT space for manufacturers. In this case, Roche wanted to optimize a chiller plant, and was considering three main companies for the optimization project. Only one of the three had the expertise necessary to meet his requirements, including understanding the importance of real-time data. “I wanted a system that could track and tell me how far away I was from my original design. That’s really hard to do if you don’t have good systems. We were installing sensors all over the place.”

Without efficiency, it’s very difficult to make the amount of product needed, Hernandez said. But with help from the integrator, Roche was able to graph key parameters instantaneously to see exactly how systems were performing in real time. “It gives you knowledge; data is knowledge,” he said. “It reduced by $250,000 my maintenance cost. And we don’t have to use operators on the weekends.”

Hernandez appealed to the integrators in the audience to help manufacturers with the IoT journey. “You have all this knowledge, and you can help companies like us.”

Bob Maroney, vice president of site operations for Amgen Manufacturing Ltd (AML) in Juncos, Puerto Rico, made a similar plea during his presentation about Puerto Rico’s pharmaceutical industry earlier in the day. Amgen and other manufacturers could use the kind of cross-industry insight that integrators can offer—not only for help with regulatory compliance, but also navigating the benefits that IIoT can bring. “We’re just in our infancy when it comes to using data and integrating systems to make things work better for us,” he said. “We’re nowhere near where other industries are when it comes to using this data.”

Mark LaRoche, owner and co-founder of Superior Controls and also a member of the panel, conceded that his business could be doing more to help manufacturers with IoT efforts. “With customers, we have not pursued that to the extent that we should,” he said.

Superior Controls has considerable experience as a system integrator in life sciences, food and beverage, building automation and other industries, and has seen plenty of instances where the cost to run a legacy system would justify the replacement with updated, connected operations. “We’re seeing it all over the place,” LaRoche said. “A lot of us need to take a look at what we can do for our customers to push that initiative.”

As one automation supplier commented during the unconference debate, “IoT and IIoT will not survive without the system integrators in this room. Our job as a vendor is to make sure you understand that technology to implement safely for your clients.”

There is indeed a lot for system integrators to learn and understand if they want to take the lead and provide the services that manufacturers so desperately need. But such is always the case. “Our business is putting together different systems and creating solutions, and solving clients’ problems,” De Bernardini commented. “This will be the same approach in the Internet of Things.”