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A system integrator isn’t always required

A vendor's training program is a good start, but hands-on experience becomes necessary sooner or later

Some readers of this column have asked, "Why would my company need a system integrator to automate our packaging facility anyway? We have engineers on staff who already know our methods and our machines. Why not let them handle our automation projects in-house?" For many automation end users, that may be a good option. Executing an automation project internally gives the plant's engineers full control over the project's timing and design, as well as complete knowledge of the finished system.

However, the in-house engineers would have to be up to the task. They would need not only the technical skills to understand and implement the required automation technology, but they would also need more time and resources than they already consume for their regular jobs.

Still, some larger plants are so highly automated that management can afford to dedicate a staff of in-house engineers exclusively to the tasks of implementing new automation systems and maintaining old ones. A full-time automation department might still need additional staff during startups and other labor-intensive operations, but it's a lot easier to temporarily assign a plant engineer to the automation department than it is to create an entire automation department temporarily.

Either way, the plant's automation engineers would also need to be familiar with the wide variety of automation products available, what hardware and software products are capable of performing the required functions and where such products can be obtained. Automation vendors can help customers select their products, but many plant engineers underestimate the time and effort required to stay abreast of new product developments.

And once the right automation products have been selected, there's still the matter of learning how to use them. A vendor's training program is a good start, but hands-on experience becomes necessary sooner or later. Wary project managers should include sufficient slack in their project schedules to account for the learning curves required to educate their in-house engineers.

Learning how to integrate all of those automation products with the plant's production equipment can steepen that learning curve considerably. Savvy system integrators already know how to make computerized devices talk to one another and to devices in the field, often as a result of previous experience rather than any vendor-supplied documentation. And when products from multiple vendors are involved, trial and error might well be the only way to figure out how to make the combined system work.

Project management is another requirement for successful implementation that is often overlooked on projects executed internally. When services are supplied by an outside system integrator, the methodology and tracking of the project are ensured by the integrator's standard operating procedures. In-house engineers often must invent such procedures from scratch. Perhaps the most insidious cost of using in-house engineers for automation projects is the burden of long-term support. The in-house staff can be plagued by minor glitches or upgrades needed for long-completed projects. This can disrupt current projects, as engineers familiar with older systems return to correcting recurring problems.

Consulting Editor Vance J. VanDoren, Ph.D., P.E., contributes articles on process control, advanced control and system integration. Dr. VanDoren also edits Control Engineering's and Packaging Digest's annual Automation Integrator Guide. Dr. VanDoren previously served the industrial automation industry as an applications engineer for General Electric and as a product marketing and development engineer for Texas Instruments' Industrial Automation Division. He currently manages a firm of consulting engineers in Lafayette, IN, where he develops custom control strategies for advanced process-control applications.

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