Successful automation projects depend on a number of factors, from process definition to system installation. The number of automation vendors, software components, hardware components, and related automation stuff is growing. As the products and product sets have become more complex, more end users are turning to system integrators to help them in product selection, development and implementation, training, and maintenance.
Who’s on First
As automation technology advances and continues to broaden in scope and functionality, lines of distinction between system integrators, value-added resellers (VARs), vendors, and OEMs are beginning to blur. In today’s marketplace, VARs have become more competitive by adding services that make them look more like a system integrator than a VAR. Some vendors have created in-house consulting and integration units to compete with established integrators.
To establish a common terminology then, the following broad definitions are offered.
OEM – Original Equipment Manufacturer. An OEM in the automation industry has come to mean the manufacturer of a piece of equipment typically installed at end user locations to perform manufacturing or related processes. They may use a vast array of components purchased from automation product manufacturers.
Manufacturer (vendor, supplier). In this article, manufacturer or vendor refers to producers of the automation components used to create control systems. Many of these manufacturers also offer consulting and system integration services. While the vendor may recommend their own equipment and solution, it will be up to the buyer to determine whether the recommendations are valid and objective.
VAR – Value-added Reseller. VARs traditionally are distributors of the automation components, but who may also add their own expertise to help customers solve application problems and design systems.
System Integrator. A system integrator will review and/or document a customer’s project requirements and then choose the hardware and software that most closely matches the requirements for that system. In addition to hardware and software, a system integrator may also provide the installation, training, service, andmaintenance as required for that particular project. If the project requires a new widget, the system integrator will “integrate” that widget into the selected hardware and software.
System integrators have increasingly broadened their skill sets in recent years in order to satisfy customer demands. Many customers whose project is to do “process reengineering” want a single company responsible for all aspects of the job. Therefore, many integrators have to provide training, project management (including coordinating other vendors) or process reengineering in order to compete with those integrators who already offer a complete start-to-finish package.
System integrators fulfill a need when a company does not have the internal expertise and resources to design and develop a system, and yet the project needs are far greater than a single vendor can accomplish. Many vendors depend on integrators to provide the programming and industry expertise to build applications, integrate hardware components, and handle integration of third-party software programs such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) or manufacturing execution systems (MES).
A system integrator is a company that is capable of making diverse components work together as a system. While an integrator does not usually add value to the components purchased, the whole system, when assembled, represents a purpose-built system that accomplishes specific work.
The value that a system integrator adds to a project is:
1. The resources and capability to objectively select the right hardware and software for the project
2. The ability to integrate these components into a system that solves specific work
3. The programming resources and experience for system development
4. The capability to also provide process reengineering, system installation, system training, system maintenance, and future product integration
Today’s system integrator is no longer only responsible for making hardware/software components work together. They are often responsible for a project from conception to a finished turnkey system.
A system integrator may have vertical industry experience that allows them to understand a project’s needs at a more complete level than a vendor or VAR who is not as experienced in that industry. For example, an integrator may specialize in the oil and gas industry and therefore will have a tremendous understanding of an automation project’s potential problems, needs, “potholes”, and overall direction. Also, with an experienced integrator, the customer is not faced with training the integrator on their industry and the basic processes and terminology. While not mandatory, it is helpful to talk with people who understand your business and speak the same language. Often, an integrator will have completed many projects of a similar nature and this experience could save the customer thousands of hours in time because the integrator has already encountered and solved similar problems.
When is a System Integrator Needed?
An end user interested in developing an automation system needs to understand automation technology at a system level, process reengineering, cost justifications, workflow to build the application, and component level programming/integration. Since many customers have an engineering staff appropriate for normal business operations, that expertise may not typically exist within the company. For new, larger projects, these companies may choose to use system integrators instead of increasing their internal headcount.
Another reason why customers may need systems integrators is the decomposition of automation technology from “systems” to “components.” Traditional automation systems were complete (but proprietary) systems and the vendor supplied all the necessary system components. Today’s automation systems are frequently “open platforms” in which a variety of third-party components can be plugged in, changed, added in later, or developed from scratch. While increasing control system complexity, the “open platform” has allowed users to select the “best of breed” and usually lets them reduce the overall system cost. Knowing and understanding the functionality of the wide range of components may be beyond the resources of many end users and therefore an integrator’s knowledgeis valuable.
Finding a System Integrator
Once it has been determined that the services of a system integrator are required, the next step is to find integrators that can participate in the project. The easiest method for locating automation system integrators is to begin a dialog with the primary automation vendors. Most vendors are more than willing to help establish the basic needs of the project and determine whether it is a fit for that company.
Depending on how far along the project is, many vendors will offer consulting support or recommend that a system integrator be brought in initially. Most vendors have a network of system integrators that they normally work with. Automation vendors are a primary source for locating system integrators. For example, on AutomationDirect’s Web site, there is a listing of the integrators that have been evaluated and authorized to be part of the SIDirect program (www.automationdirect.com/si).
System integrators can also be contacted directly and brought into the project. If this is the case, they may be more open to choosing the appropriate technology than if brought in by an automation vendor. Finding system integrators depends on geographical location of the project, the size of the project, and the process application. Organizations such as the Control Systems Integrators Association (CSIA) can be resources for finding and evaluating integrators (www.controlsys.org).
Selecting a System Integrator
The primary factor for selecting a system integrator is the size and complexity of the automation project and the internal resources of the company itself. Resources could include both a corporate and local plant engineering group. If neither group has experience in automation technology, then it may be more expedient to bring in a system integrator who can manage the project from beginning to end.
As with any company providing a major system, the potential vendors and system integrators should be researched for business and technical stability. Questions to ask include:
1. Corporate history provided with resumes of key personnel
2. Number of installed automation sites/years of experience
3. Names/contact information for at least two or three reference sites
For some companies that are fairly small, it may be wise to visit the headquarters’ offices. As part of this visit, it may also be possible to visit one of their installed accounts. While the level of due diligence can be determined based on many factors, it should be an essential part of the selection process. End users will want to feel confident that the integrator will be in business long-term to support the installation if necessary, and possibly expand it in the future.
Are System Integrators Objective?
System integrators (who have consulting groups) typically claim independence from preconceived solutions and will provide an objective analysis. This is based on their notion that as a system integrator they always “integrate” the appropriate equipment for that project. It should be understood, however, that most integrators work with one or two vendors and the “solution” will inevitably be focused on one of the vendors with whom they have a working relationship. Having these relationships allows the integrator to have a more complete understanding of the product itself, and provide a better overall implementation.
To feel confident that the systems integrator will supply the best overall solution, it is up to the buyer to do their homework, provide detailed project requirements and understand what is being purchased (hardware and software, as well as the system integrator’s services). While this may be a generalization, most projects do not fail because of the technology, they fail because the system provider and user do not have the same expectations. Frequent and accurate communication is the key to keeping all participants up to date with the definition and progress of the project.
This article, based on the previously published piece “Finding and Working with Systems Integrators”, copyright 1997, is revised and reprinted with permission of Porter-Roth Associates.
By Joan Welty,
Originally Published: Dec. 1, 2007