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System integration—often an accidental career

The 2007/2008 edition of Packaging Digest's annual "System Integrator Guide" appears in the Suppliers Guide mailing with this issue. It includes 455 contract-engineering firms that provide some form of automation system integration services to manufacturers in the packaging industry.

Almost three quarters of those packaging system integrators have entered the industry since 1982, which amounts to more than one per month over the last 25 years. And twice as many system integrators have begun serving other automated industries over the same period.

So where did they all come from? Anecdotal evidence suggests that engineering companies rarely start out with the intention of becoming system integrators. Most stumble into the industry by accident.

Perhaps the most common origin story for system integrators starts with a major manufacturer trying to cut costs by laying off its entire automation department. Those downsized engineers then come back to work as contract employees with the same responsibilities but fewer benefits. Eventually the contract work dries up too, and those engineers are forced to branch out, looking for other clients.

A common variation on this story features under-employed engineers from related industries who are willing or perhaps even eager to have a go at owning their own business. After all, the cost of entry into the system integration industry is very low, and the required technical expertise can often be accumulated on the job. As one recently certified member of the Control System Integrator Association (CSIA) has said, "It's not rocket science. Our clients pay us to read the manuals."

That's not to say that just anybody can succeed in the system integration business. According to Packaging Digest's sister publication, Control Engineering, automation system integrators also disappear at a rate of 7 percent per year, often for lack of the skills necessary to run a business. Incidentally, not a single CSIA-certified system integrator has ever gone out of business since the organization began auditing its members' business practices in 2001.

Some existing businesses have also switched to the system integration business, especially automation vendors and distributors. They already have experienced automation engineers on staff to provide product selection and troubleshooting advice to their clients, so it's generally not much of a stretch to start hiring them out for entire projects.

Ironically, the career path that is rarest amongst system integrators is formal academic training. Although most system integrators are staffed with degreed engineers, they've usually majored in the traditional engineering disciplines, not in "automation system integration engineering" per se. The most notable exceptions are graduates of the Center for Automation and Systems Integration (CASI) at Indiana State University's College of Technology. CASI is focused on research and development in the areas of automation, control systems and system integration and brings together academic and industry professionals for system integration projects and seminars. See www.indstate.edu —Vance VanDoren, [email protected]

Consulting Editor Vance J. VanDoren, Ph.D., P.E., contributes articles on process control, advanced control and systems integration and edits Control Engineering's and Packaging Digest's annual Automation Integrator Guide.

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