Eight tips for selecting the right automation system components

Many factors come into play when choosing components or systems for an automation project. Some companies reduce the complexity by limiting the number of suppliers they work with or standardizing on certain features or functionalities. Others want maximum flexibility and the ability to customize solutions or select from multiple vendors. The growing use of components built to industry standards is making both approaches easier to implement.

1. Flexibility required. The adaptability and flexibility of components are critical. Make sure that open standards like IEC 61131-3, PLCOpen and overall fieldbus communications are supported. For OEMs, having equipment that communicates with more than one fieldbus is an advantage, because they will not have to order different part numbers for different customer requirements.

2. Easy replacement. Ensure that components are user friendly, maintenance friendly, easily available in the market and not the proprietary product of only one supplier. Components should be easily replaceable with another make when needed at any point in time. The system should have the flexibility to expand in the future and should not become obsolete in the near future. Get a commitment from the OEM about planned system life.

3. Don't forget power. Make sure you have all the needed power requirements in the locations intended for your new devices for the instrumentation you are using. Don't forget to update all prints to reflect your changes.

4. Functionality. Make sure new components have all the functionalities that will be required, such as asset management, power integration, safety system integration and the load of the CPU.

5. Three considerations. First, make sure new components will comply with regulations, standards and best practices. Second, components must be consistent and compatible with existing systems. Third, anticipate new trends in automation to keep your system sustainable.

6. Systems thinking. Do not fail to think systemically, including power, grounding, communications, control and environment.

7. Look for support. Make sure to do the research and consider the ease with which a system can be modified if needed. Always evaluate whether support will be available after the project is completed. It does no good if the system will be obsoleted within two years and will no longer be supported. If buying from a machine builder, look at the OEM's track record and see how often they advance to newer generations of equipment.

8. Simplify. Select from a specific and predetermined list of components during the design phase on any piece of equipment so you don't need a spare parts room the size of a small plant. Go green wherever possible. Retrofit pneumatics, for example, using electric cylinders instead; restrict the number of stroke lengths to no more than three. Use similar criteria to simplify selection for other product categories, whether it's motors, servos or other components.

Find a partner

Automation project managers need to find partners who they can trust and rely on to be with them through every stage of the project, from planning to implementation, from start-up to long-term service and support. If a problem does crop up, a good project manager needs to know that their chosen vendors can be trusted to do the right thing in the heat of the moment to keep the project on track and make it a success. There will be plenty of time later to analyze the cause of and blame for the problem. The important thing is to not let issues get in the way of the project schedule and ultimate success.

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