Distributed engineering

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By Wayne Labs, Contributing Editor

WITH TODAY'S abbreviated staffs, where can manufacturers turn when they need a new plant, a new control system, an upgrade, or help in fine tuning a process, managing assets, or integrating new equipment and software?

Thanks to local system integrators, consultants, and automation suppliers with links to expertise wherever it may be—help is just around the corner, or just around the world—in Sydney, Capetown, Lyons, Helsinki, Houston, or Montréal. When local technology providers run out of ideas, they can connect with other regional providers through organized groups such as the Control and Information System Integrators Association (CSIA), and through collective business groups where multiple system integrators can act as one business, sharing expertise and technologies. With Internet tools in place, any of these outsourcing options can provide distributed design and engineering of your control system—no matter where you’re located.

Where to Find Help
Norman F. O'Leary, CSIA’s executive director, says there are four sources for assistance on system design and integration: the automation suppliers themselves, their distributors, independent control system integrators, and large architect and engineering (A&E) firms. Each has its advantages and disadvantages and will have differing levels of expertise and geographic coverage areas. In many cases, some of these groups may work together on the same project.

Manufacturers need to consider several points before settling on one of these four groups. For example, if a manufacturer is rolling out a system in all its plants around the world, consistency and the contractor’s ability to be in all these locations will be important issues. Some manufacturers will not want to be locked into a particular automation supplier’s solution, and may want to mix process or batch, motion, and programmable controllers from different vendors. In addition, staff size, qualifications and flexibility can be important. Another issue is specialized expertise; if it isn’t available in a certain location, it may be readily available elsewhere. Also, having a large A&E or engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firm design and build a plant may not guarantee control system expertise where it’s required.

Bruce Jensen, systems marketing and sales support for Yokogawa, says the roles of A&E firms and vendors have changed in the past 10 years. He notes that vendors are more involved in the front-end engineering design (FEED) of control [systems], which was once mostly handled by larger EPCs. Likewise, the control staffs of some EPCs also aren’t the same as they were a decade ago, so many automation vendors have been filling in the gaps. This allows users to hold vendors more responsible for equipment and controls following installation.

O’Leary adds that dealing with automation suppliers may lock manufacturers into a particular solution. However, these major automation suppliers also usually have the global resources to assure consistent implementations, and find that “expert” when you need him. Distributors can provide integration for more than one manufacturer, but may have limited expertise, making it necessary for manufacturers to look beyond the distributor for more knowledgeable help. In addition, distributors might not have the staff to develop large, complicated systems.

Integrators and Collaboration
Control system integrators (SIs) vary in size and specialties, and tend to keep employees for a long time. Because integrators can’t claim expertise in every vertical area or technology, some have formed business groups to extend their services beyond those which any individual company can offer.

For example, Total Systems Design (TSD) is an SI specializing in pharmaceuticals, but it also belongs to the Automation Alliance Group (AAG), which consists of more than 10 firms with offices in North America and worldwide, as shown in Figure 1. AAG’s capabilities range from discrete to batch to continuous applications. Jim Cummings, TSD’s president, observes that the Alliance represents about 1,500 employees, including several hundred engineers. Any of the member companies can pull the resources of the total alliance, making it easier to provide manufacturers with ongoing local support after system implementation.

Kevin Tock, advanced applications and alliances VP for Wonderware, notes that the AAG has helped his company with large MES rollouts across state and national boundaries. Tock sees AAG as a model that will become even more significant as manufacturers seek collaborative outsourcing arrangements. With this group’s ability to handle such a varied array of applications, Wonderware has found ways of extending its MES product to several horizontal applications.

Meanwhile, since A&E firms typically do system integration as part of larger contracts, their SI staffs tend to be smaller than their HVAC group, primarily because HVAC usually represents a bigger cost portion of the contract than the controls. Bill Robertson, director of Worldwide Services at Emerson Process Management, observes that with A&E firms, unless some arrangement is made at the outset of the project, customers often find themselves with a lack of ongoing support after a job is finished. This is especially critical in remote regions, where there is a need for continuous engineering support. Robertson’s group can help, not only with technical issues, but also with manufacturers’ work processes to help them be more efficient.
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