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Lead Integrators and the Future of Manufacturing

A new level of partnership between manufacturers and automation solution providers aims to fill the engineering skills gap.

Michael Gurney, co-CEO of Concept Systems Inc.
Michael Gurney, co-CEO of Concept Systems Inc.

One thing is certain, the world of automation moves at a dizzying speed.

The evolution of technologies like laser scanning, laser welding and non-contact encoders has been remarkable. Where will 3D printing take us? How will graphene impact the products we use? While technology promises to continue to evolve quickly, what can’t be said with any certainty is what the automation world will look like in 10, or even five, years from now.

Couple this with the fact that many manufacturers have reduced engineering staff in an effort to run leaner and it begs the question: How will manufacturers capitalize on what automation has, and will continue, to offer?

As manufacturers have cut engineering staff, automation solution providers have continued to up their game—specifically to fill the gap created by fewer staff engineering resources at their clients' sites. This shift has resulted in the emergence of many world-class engineering companies focused on the automation space, as evidenced by the continued growth and interest in the Control System Integrators Association. The CSIA is a global, not-for-profit trade organization that seeks to advance the industry of control system integration and promote best practices.

This shift has also led to a new level of partnership between automation solution provider and manufacturer, one we call “lead integrator.” With the appearance of the "lead integrator" role in automation projects, there has been a move away from the traditional client/vendor relationship where everything is looked at on a project-to-project basis. Now it is more common to have automation solution providers at the planning table, helping define and implement an automation roadmap and often looking forward as much as five years.

I should note here that the term lead integrator is often used interchangeably with the term main automation contractor (MAC). However, due to my personal distaste of TLAs (three-letter acronyms), I hope the term "lead integrator" becomes the standard.

In essence, the lead integrator works side-by-side with the client to understand their business drivers and unique manufacturing processes and brings the automation expertise to the table. The commitment made by the lead integrator is to stay current on technology developments and maintain a focus on emerging technologies their client could benefit from. In this fashion, the lead integrator is acting as the controls and automation engineering arm of the manufacturer.

The value of having a lead integrator involved in the planning process is in defining standards that best fit the manufacturer and support their business needs. These include, but do not need to be limited to: network architecture, data access, reporting, hardware, programming methods, and human-machine interface (HMI) look/feel standards.

Lead integrators also serve a vital role in project implementation by ensuring adherence to standards throughout the design phase and working with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to drive the standards in the systems they provide.

This type of standards adherence offers significant advantages from a total cost of ownership standpoint as well as in positioning the manufacturer to take advantage of automation technologies as they emerge. We can't fully predict where automation technology will be in 10 years, but manufacturers can ensure they are the best positioned to take advantage of what comes next by working with a lead integrator.

Michael Gurney is co-CEO of Concept Systems Inc., a Certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. Concept Systems is headquartered in Albany, Ore., U.S. Learn more about Concept Systems on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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