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System Integrators Expand Engineering Duties

As plants trim engineering staffs, systems integrators take on more control responsibility

{mosimage} The eyeglass manufacturer, Ophthonix Inc., in Vista, Calif., needed to integrate a lean-based flexible conveyor to accelerate production time and improve the quality of its custom-made lenses. The goal was to develop a variable speed drive module to run at a quicker pace with ample cooling. The company turned to Bosch Rexroth Corp., Hoffman Estates, Ill., for a VarioFlow flexible conveyor and brought in Eagle Technologies Group, in Bridgman, Mich., as the systems integrator for the project.

Eagle came in early to help design and integrate a fully automated lab. Integrators are frequently brought in early in automation projects because they tend to be the engineers with the widest range of experience in plant automation, and they have the best overall knowledge of vendor tools. Eagle recommended using the facility’s 10,000 square-foot finishing lab like a cube to take advantage of vertical space.

In addition to mapping the layout, Eagle specified and built the conveyors, the vertical buffer system and a tray-up de-stacker to optimize the production process. Eagle had developed its creative problem-solving ideas at other plants in other industries. “Systems integrators have taken our products and done ingenious things to solve problems for our customers,” says Kevin Gingerich, director of linear motion and assembly technologies at Bosch Rexroth. “They’re taking their exposure to best practices and developing elegant ways of solving problems.”

An advantage of Eagle’s wide experience across many industries—automotive, medical, agriculture, furniture—was
the company’s ability to revamp the automation system quickly. “They were able to install the system in less than three weeks, which is a quick turnaround for a conveyer system of this magnitude,” says John Lemperle, vice president of operations at Ophthonix.

Systems integrators are taking a larger role in the installation and even maintenance of plant control systems. In difficult economic times, plants cut their engineering staffs. When conditions improved, engineers were not rehired. Many plants have effectively outsourced their engineering to integrators. Consequently, integrators are brought in earlier on projects and they’ve given more responsibility.

Integrators are also viewed as the experts in control engineering. Plants depend on integrators to know a range of control tools and to understand how these tools are used. Because integrators hop from industry to industry, and vendor to vendor, they bring a bag of best practices to their customers. “Our role is to help plants [specify] the hardware and software and get the control they want to end up with,” says Barry Stringer, president of Solvere, a Belmont, N.C., systems integrator. “Most customers use us because they outsource their control engineering. They have expertise, but they don’t keep up with the latest in control.”

Vendor agnostic

While many systems integrators work closely with specific vendors, they are expected to be familiar with a wide range of multi-vendor tools. “When you talk to vendor reps, you get their view. An independent systems integrator gives you advice based on familiarity with a number of vendors. They’ve seen other applications and they can tell you if they’re applicable,” says Russ Nowak, director of research at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass. “The integrator shares the good and the bad. The plant owners expect that from their integrators.”

When integrators work independently, they can bring in solutions from a range of possible vendors. “We provide more flexibility by providing a multiple-vendor control platform,” says Michael Gurney, an engineer at Concept Systems Inc., an integrator in Albany, Ore. “If a plant has a particular vendor in charge and they no longer want that vendor’s tools, they’re in a pinch. If we’re working with the plant, we can bring in a secondary solution.”

Years ago, systems integrators were hired to augment the plant’s engineering team. More and more, the integrator is part of the plant’s engineering staff. Many plants are effectively outsourcing their engineering to systems integrators. “When I first got into this business, eight engineers would follow me around to make sure I knew what I was doing,” says Bob Zeigenfuse, president, Avanceon LP, a systems integrator in Exton, Pa. “Now it’s hard to find an engineer.

“The overall trend over the last 30 years is that we’re gone from augmenting projects, to carrying the bulk of the lead, to completely leading the projects,” says Zeigenfuse. “We get involved early in projects and we actually formulate the requirements.”

Brian Beaufaux, president of Industrial Automation Engineering Inc., an integrator in Ham Lake, Minn., describes a similar experience. “When I started 20 years ago, there were four shop engineers for every integrator engineer. The systems engineer would design the system and the shop guys would build it,” says Beaufaux.  “Now you have three integrator engineers for every shop guy and the hardware is more sophisticated.”

Best practices

As systems integrators move from job to job, they accumulate knowledge from a variety of vendors and a range of different industries. “Best practices is definitely part of what we offer, and end-users appreciate it,” says Ed Diehl, president of Concept Systems. “We work across many industries. We can take things we’ve learned in aerospace or food and it can be applied to consumer products applications.”

Professional certification of integrators also gives integrators credibility as professionals who understand systems across many industries. “The certification credential from the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) lets the user expect a professional organization to bring structured project methodology,” says Ray Bachelor, president of Bachelor Controls Inc., an integrator in Sabetha, Kan. “Certified integrators will build a more consistent platform, rather than a loose collection of disparate hardware.”

Accumulating best practices is more than simply working at a lot of different plants. The teaching of best practices has become part of CSIA’s certification process. “We have a process in place where we have a best practices committee and we subject submissions to peer review,” says Bachelor. “Through peer review, we evaluate whether this or that is a better best practice. We manage best practices systematically.”

One key attribute of systems integrators is their ability to provide local support and troubleshooting. “One of the value propositions of systems integrators is they have a local presence,” says ARC’s Nowak. “So [end-users] know the integrator will be available to help with training.”

Using a local integrator, though, can produce complications for companies with multiple plants. “The majority of our customers are pretty much in the South, but some of those customers use us globally,” says Stringer, of Solvere. “So we get on planes and go to other plants, and we try to support some plants by phone. The Internet has helped us to support plants remotely.”

Integrators are being called on to take more responsibility than simply designing and implementing control systems. Integrators are now getting asked to assume responsibility for systems’ maintenance. “We’re being asked about maintenance support agreements,” says Stringer. They want a yearly contract because they don’t have the personnel to do it.”

There are two more areas where systems integrators are taking more responsibility—keeping systems from degrading, and managing data. “You spend all this money on these automation systems and they degrade.  After two or three years, the majority of the applications are turned off, including features designed to add value,” says Avanceon’s Zeigenfuse. “We had a plant that was operating at 50 percent efficiency and we moved it to 80 percent by doing a number of little things they didn’t have the time to do.”

Systems integrators are also getting involved in managing the flow of data. “One value we provide is looking at what the plant is doing with data,” says Dean Streck, chief executive officer of VI Engineering, an integrator in Farmington Hills, Mich. In many cases, useful data exists within a plant, but it’s not getting to the right people, says Streck. “We take the data and make it accessible,” he notes. “In one case, we took plant data and delivered it to the business side in five minutes—when it used to take five weeks.”

Given all the changes in plant staffs and the increasing complexity of the hardware and software involved in plant automation, the role of the systems integrator has expanded significantly over the past two decades. In many cases, plants effectively outsource their automation engineering to integrators, even including the maintenance involved in keeping the system in prime working order.

Sidebar Article - Integrators Bridge the Gap
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