If you are a U.S. manufacturer, you already know this fact: skilled people are hard to find. From production line workers, to skilled trade people, technicians, and engineers, finding the right skillsets to support your production is a significant challenge.
At the same time, you face intense competitive pressures to increase productivity, improve quality, introduce new products to the market, and reduce cost.
These combined forces—lack of resources and competitive pressures—have led many manufacturers to improve and expand their automation. Automation makes sense on many levels. To begin with, using properly selected and applied automation, manufacturers need fewer people on the plant floor and can eliminate dangerous and repetitive tasks. Plus, automation has a successful track record in making companies more competitive.
However, the success of automation has also helped cause manufacturing's human resource challenge: Where do you find the skilled workforce to automate your processes? System integrators (SIs) provide manufacturers with a skilled team that can tackle anything from leading a large-scale integration effort for a new process, retrofitting obsolete control systems, or developing an innovative automated approach to an old problem. Many system integrators also provide ongoing service, support, and maintenance for your automated systems.
In addition to providing access to skilled engineers and technicians, good system integrators bring a structured approach to automation projects. They understand the “how” of systems integration and bring a methodology to the table that will assure success. The single key benefit of a structured methodology is risk management. When you are starting up a new line, or bringing an existing line down to be retrofitted, you need to know that the project risks are being managed. Those risks include:
- Knowing how to limit downtime.
- Having a fallback plan.
- Addressing personnel safety.
- Understanding the level of testing that is required before shutdown.
Making sure project risk is managed goes beyond the raw talent of the engineers involved. You need a structured approach to the project—following solid project management principles—to make sure the job is done right. SIs will mitigate that risk.
You can expect an SI to provide any combination of integration services. And because SIs work with a lot of different manufacturers, they are an inherently flexible group. While one client may be looking for a turn-key solution, another may need help in one specific technical area. SIs are used to providing a variety of services in any combination, including developing functional requirements, detailing system designs, code development, factory acceptance testing, installation, commissioning, startup, site acceptance testing, and validation services. Many SIs also provide control hardware and automated work cell solutions.
Following are some specific examples of how system integrators help fill the manufacturing skills gap:
Service, support and maintenance. Many SIs have dedicated service and support staff. You can pre-purchase a set number of hours for the year to address whatever needs to be done in your plant. This is an effective way to augment your staff and handle small upgrades, make process improvements, replace obsolete equipment, train staff, etc. SIs do this for a number of manufacturers and it works well by relieving the stress on the manufacturer’s internal support team. The SI comes in for a set number of days per week and handles the punch list or provides service as needed on an on-call basis. For example, I’ve got such a contract with one manufacturer that typically engages one of my engineers just a few hours a month. But once in a while the tasks involve a specialty technology, or a short downtime window, and I’m able to bring in additional resources just to tackle that particular task.
Lead integrator. When that big line expansion needs to be done, even manufacturers with dedicated engineering teams can be maxed out. Teaming with an SI that can manage and staff all the control and information pieces for a large project makes a lot of sense. In this situation, SIs work as an extension of the client’s project team. SIs are able to staff up during key points in the project. In contrast to a typical temporary staffing firm, the systems integrator brings both talented people and a structured project methodology to these projects.
Control retrofits. Many manufacturers have obsolete, unsupported control systems running critical production centers. Downtime risks due to a control failure increase every day that old system is still in place; yet there are also risks associated with a retrofit that goes wrong. Teaming with an SI is an effective risk management strategy. Many SIs have the technical experience with your old and new technology, combined with a risk management strategy that includes factory acceptance testing in advance of the shutdown, hour-by-hour conversion plans, contingency plans and backup resources. SIs regularly retrofit mission-critical systems within very short scheduled downtime periods.
Innovative automation solutions. You probably have many areas in your facility where you think “we can do that better/faster/safer/easier if we automate”, but there isn’t one machine or work cell on the market that does the trick. Many SIs thrive on these challenges, integrating proven automation technologies together in new ways to solve old problems. SIs regularly leverage what they have seen in other industries and applications to solve such problems. For example, 3D scanners I’ve used for years in the wood products industry work wonders for food packaging inspection.
System integrators work best when treated as an extension of your team. You bring the knowledge of your specific processes and market needs; the SI brings a working knowledge of leveraging automation technologies. By working with your SI as a partner, you can solve some big manufacturing challenges while eliminating the need to hire additional skilled staff.
If you are looking for a system integrator partner, check out the Control System Integrators Association. Within the CSIA integrator membership, manufacturers have access to about 14,000 trained and experienced control engineers, automation engineers and technicians. Their backgrounds are as varied and diverse as the technologies that run your plant, bringing a wealth of insight and fresh ideas to the table.
Ed Diehl is Co-CEO of Concept Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. Concept Systems is headquartered in Albany, Ore. Ed is a member of a panel of system integrators who will be addressing this topic at The Automation Conference.