Hiring a professional system integrator to design and install a custom automation system can reduce the overall cost of the project and improve the quality of the work, compared to projects implemented entirely in house by enthusiastic amateurs. In-house engineers know better than anyone how their plant works, but they're not likely to be as familiar with automation technology or how it can be used most effectively. The trick: Figuring out how to merge their experience with the system integrator's expertise.
Savvy system integrators know how to do that. They can develop a project plan based on objectives outlined by plant management, combined with the application-specific knowledge of plant engineers and operators. From there, they can implement the automation system that best achieves those goals.
But their ability to complete an automation project satisfactorily depends not only on their own skills, but also on the quality of the information they have to work with. Some plant engineers are understandably reluctant to reveal their trade secrets, preferring to operate on a strict need-to-know basis. And though some degree of confidentiality may be necessary to protect the plant's proprietary intellectual property, undue secrecy may deprive the system integrator of information vital to project success.
Other plant engineers will try to design and implement as much of their new automation system as they can manage themselves, bringing in a system integrator only for the technical implementation.
This, too, may be considered a necessary precaution for the sake of maintaining confidentiality, or a cost-saving measure, but it may not achieve either objective in the long run.
As Ed Diehl, executive director of system integrator Concept Systems (www.conceptsystemsinc.com) notes, experienced plant engineers prefer to bring system integrators into a project early on. “The trend has been to rely more on integrators at the initial stages of a project to help develop and specify the control architecture and approach,” Diehl says. “This is more of a consultative role and is a direct result of the end users' reduction in project staff.
Instead of end users developing control specifications, they are coming to integrators with very loosely defined needs and expecting help to develop automation solutions. Rather than responding to bid specifications, integrators are helping end users solve problems by defining their current and future automation needs.”
Diehl adds that integrators can also help decide what to do, not just how to do it. “Manufacturers have more automation choices available to them than ever before. The key is to get the best return on their automation investment,” he notes.
“With the technology in continuous flux, this isn't always an easy decision to make. Where should they make an automation investment? What technology should they use? How should it be implemented? How long will it be serviced and supported? Who should integrate it? Part of an integrator's role is to provide automation advice and consultation to help manufacturers plan for their future success.”