Traditional automation system integrators aren't the only available sources for automation system-integration services. Automation equipment vendors, their distributors, architectural, engineers and construction firms, custom machine builders and individual consultants can provide some or all of the services required to design and install an industrial automation system. And the list keeps getting longer.
Service and repair companies have started offering pre-installation as well as post-installation assistance. Software houses, especially programmable logic control (PLC) programmers, are installing hardware, while panel builders are moving into the programming business. Some electrical contractors who have traditionally run the wires and hooked up the electrical equipment specified in the project's design have also begun building the required control panels, too.
Why? The reasons vary, but most relate to better serving a client's needs or providing more competitive pricing. Most distributors and panel builders have engineers on staff anyway, so with some additional training and specialized equipment, it's relatively easy to get into the system integration business for clients who want to outsource their automation projects to a single company.
Conversely, traditional system integrators have typically subcontracted their control-panel work to independent panel builders. When business is steady, many integrators establish or acquire their own in-house panel shops to profit from the extra work and reduce the overhead for the project. Lower overhead often translates into lower costs for the client.
There are engineering firms that specialize in integrating automation technology into specific applications. Robotic system integrators, packaging system integrators and material-handling system integrators perform roughly the same design and installation functions as general-purpose automation system integrators, but focus exclusively on projects that involve robots, packaging lines, or material-handling equipment.
These specialized integrators are often divisions of, or distributors for, vendors that manufacture the equipment. Some get into the system-integration business for the extra revenue; others as a means of facilitating product sales. Motor manufacturers, for example, supply motors and drives for machine control applications. The advent of digital drives has enabled a host of advanced motion-control functions often beyond a client's technical expertise.
The manufacturer must understand the application and either show the client how they can perform those functions themselves or provide that service for them. Otherwise, clients might buy equipment from manufacturers with more comprehensive service offerings. So many sources for system integration can be both a boon and a bane. It's good to have options, but challenging to find the most qualified provider.
Fortunately, Packaging Digest provides a comprehensive, online directory of system integration providers of all kinds (go to the “Find System Integrators” button under the Resources tab at www.packagingdigest.com) where a multi-criteria search engine allows users to search for providers by a combination of name, location, annual revenue, geographic areas served, engineering specialties, product experience, corporate affiliations and/or professional affiliations.