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'System integrator' lacks a clear definition



As noted here last month, the automation system integration industry lacks a clear identity in part because the phrase “automation system integrator” lacks a clear definition. Identifying the boundaries of the industry and the companies that qualify for inclusion depends largely on the observer's personal point of view.

The definition of “system integrator” alone is even harder to pin down since every industry seems to have its own. For example, Webopedia (www.webopedia.com) defines a system integrator as “an individual or a company that specializes in building complete computer systems by putting together components from different vendors.” In its on-line glossary, Armstrong Australia (www.armstrong-aust.com.au) explains that “system integrators provide engineering design, layout and installation of wireless systems.” And the Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) website offers no fewer than six different descriptions of what constitutes a “system integrator.”

At least Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.com) recognizes that there are different kinds of system integrators for different industries. “A system integrator is a person or a company that specializes in integrating systems. System integrators may work in many fields, but the term is generally used in the information technology (IT) field, the defense industry or in the media.”

But that's still not an exhaustive list. There are also robotic system integrators, access and security system integrators, manufacturing system integrators, mass-transit system integrators, printing-press system integrators, material-handling system integrators, telecommunication system integrators, and, of course, packaging-system integrators. And in each of those professions, practitioners tend to use the phrase “system integrator” as if it were unique to their particular industry.

So when searching for, or even discussing “system integrators,” the industry of interest must be specified at the outset. When presenting their credentials, system integrators will often assume that their audience already knows what kinds of systems they integrate. That's a reasonable assumption if the venue is a conference of the mass-transit or wireless-networking industries, but it can be a source of considerable confusion when the integrator's website enthusiastically extols the company's record of customer satisfaction, its commitment to quality and its technical competence without ever saying exactly what it does. Many integrators seem unaware that there are any industries but their own that involve integrated systems.

Conversely, some qualities are common to system integrators of every kind. Wikipedia notes that “system integrators generally have to be good at matching customers' needs with existing products. An integrator tends to benefit from being a generalist, knowing a little bit about a large number of products. System integration includes diagnostic and troubleshooting work.” The same could be said of system integrators in any industry.

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