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System integration

Vance J. VanDoren

As noted here last month, system integration services are available from a variety of sources, including independent system integrators, automation vendors/distributors and machine builders. For some automation projects, a team that combines the best of all these resources with the in-house engineering staff will be the most effective implementation strategy.

For example, the in-house engineers' inherent understanding of the automated process can be combined with the application expertise of a system integrator and the product knowledge of the product vendor to great effect. Each party can focus its attention on issues that may be difficult for its counterparts to handle effectively. If managed properly, such a division of labor can significantly improve the odds of completing the project on time and under budget.

Unfortunately, that can be a mighty big "if." The success of a combined implementation strategy depends on clearly defining the scope of work for each party. The communication channels between them must also be crystal clear so that minor adjustments made by one party will not cause unexpected work or delays for another. In a well-defined alliance, there should be no question about who is accountable for delivering each piece of the overall project. Indiscriminate finger pointing is never a good solution when unforeseen problems arise.

End-user involvement

Including the plant's personnel in the implementation team is also critical. The operators need to take ownership of the automation system at some point, and the in-house engineers need to know how the system works. Otherwise, every minor glitch will require a visit from whomever it was that originally installed the system.

And though system integrators can be especially cost-effective when it comes to designing and installing the automation system to begin with, bringing them back in to handle troubleshooting and maintenance responsibilities can be extremely expensive. A vendor's application engineers can be even more costly to keep on call since their hourly rates tend to be higher.

Cost-conscious end users sometimes send the rest of their implementation team home before the system is completely operational. They'll take over the project just as soon as they're confident that it's complete enough for them to finish the job in-house. Less-ambitious end users might prefer to keep at least some of their team on-site as long as possible, in order to guarantee that the project starts on schedule and is trouble-free.

Life-cycle support

A combined implementation team is powerful when the full life cycle of the automation system is taken into account. Users who make improvements after the system has been commissioned should keep their service providers apprised of any major changes, or the integrator, vendor or machine builder will need to figure out how the system is currently configured should their services be needed in the future. If the system becomes obsolete, keeping track of the original team can greatly reduce the effort required to put another team together for the next project.

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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