AT RECENT WBF conferences, people have stopped me and asked, "Where are the users?" And it does seem that fewer users (as in people who work for a manufacturing company) attend these events any more, which started me thinking. Beyond the obvious issues over cost and travel, who and where are the users these days?
If you consider that almost all major companies have not just downsized, but decimated their automation functions (along with many other traditional central engineering functions), it is no surprise that we don't see users (in the old sense of the word) at conferences any longer. So where are the new users?
In my opinion many of the "old users" are now working as consultants or integrators, often for the companies that deemed them unnecessary a few years ago. The growth in systems integration companies has been phenomenal.
So, it goes without saying that one group attending WBF events that we have seen a big increase in is systems integrators, both small and large. Systems Integrators seem to have filled the void left by the disappearing central engineering group. They are, in fact (in my opinion), the new users. Many of them have such close relationships with manufacturing companies that to all intents and purposes they are the central engineering group. The advantage to the manufacturer, though, is the ability to "turn them on and off," and keep the accountants happy.
Many of them are also certified either by one or more of the larger control systems suppliers or by the Control Systems Integrators Association (CSIA). In fact, this is also important to the manufacturers too as shown by the kind of questions being asked of integrators on bid evaluations these days:
- Provide a list of references and/or trade and professional certifications or affiliations that indicate commitment to subscribing to industry best practices and guidelines.
- Regarding your experience in chemical processes or manufacturing, do you have experience implementing Advanced Controls?
- Are you familiar with ISA-88 or implemented batch controls? If so, describe your experience.
- Is your company a registered member of the Control Systems Integrators Association (CSIA)?
- Describe your experience in the integration of and networking of open systems utilizing OPC, ControlNet, Foundation Fieldbus, Modbus and others.
Now, more than ever, manufacturers rely on good systems integrators to "peak lop" in times of high capital expenditure. But more than that, many of today's integrators offer system upgrade, maintenance and management services, and even training. They are able to do this on-site or remotely. They form relationships with a small number of manufacturers and become an extension of the workforce.
At WBF we have recognized this and, with our upcoming North American conference, have started a trial sponsor category for Systems Integrators. We will be holding a "Systems Integrators Café" where these companies can discuss their services and implementation "war stories." WBF has always been very much into the application of the standards, as well as playing a key part in the standards themselves.
The XML schemas developed by a WBF working group are in heavy demand at the moment and we see this group of integrators as possibly being able to help manufacturers with their implementation as ISA-95 becomes more widespread.
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