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Osram Sylvania’s Atanasoff agrees with Williams. “Automation vendors tend to peddle their products and make them fit every application. However, these vendors tend to have experts in the field, and I use them as a sounding board for my projects.”
Automation vendors can have a wealth of expertise, both with their own products and with integration of these products into ERP systems. “Automation vendors know the manufacturing environment – safety, uptime requirements, automation systems and protocols,” says Bob Mick, vice president, emerging technologies at industry analyst firm ARC Advisory Group. “In addition, the right automation vendor will already have existing working relationships with the plant automation group,” adds Mick.
Because automation vendors work in different process plants around the world, they can bring a range of experience to the table. “Automation vendor expertise and experience can improve internal engineering solutions because outside resources are not as susceptible to tunnel vision and are often more aware of current technology trends,” comments David Bynum, principal engineer with Coca-Cola North America, Atlanta.
Another contender for your integration project overcomes many of the limitations of automation vendors, but comes with some issues of its own.
As the name implies, a system integrator should know how to integrate hardware and software from various vendors into a coherent whole, and many do. But they must be truly independent, or they will bring the parochial drawbacks of ERP and automation vendors along with them.
“The key word is independent. An integrator not tied to a specific product is the way to go – they are selling solutions, not software. They are more flexible and willing to do customization based on my needs,” says Atanasoff.
“A system integrator with the right experience can be a real plus because you can point them in the right direction for specific tasks,” says Chris Gibbons, an engineering associate with plastic manufacturer, Sasol North America, Westlake, La.
Although automation vendors often compete with system integrators, they also cooperate in some instances and recognize their value. “System integrators are consultants who work with a variety of customers and vendors. They have the knowledge and training to implement a project specific solution and provide advice on best practices,” observes Leroux of ABB.
Although system integrators come highly recommended by many, caution is in order. “A drawback with independent integrators may be the volatility of staff and, in some cases, the ability of the integration firm to survive a very competitive and demanding industry. Integrators may not be around in five years to update or modify the installation,” cautions Cole of Smithfield Foods.
A way around this issue is to closely check the credentials of the system integrator. For example, Maverick Technologies has been around for 20 years, employ 600 people, and have annual revenues of $100 million. It is likely that Maverick and many other integrators will be around for the foreseeable future.
But as Williams of Total System Design says, “only crazy people become consultants or systems integrators for this kind of project work.” This author used to be one of those crazy people, and the work is certainly demanding. This inevitably leads to higher employee turnover than with automation and ERP vendors.
Be cognizant of anticipated longevity of the integrator and of expected tenure of its employees working on your project. Although some integrators frown on it, many end users will hire a key employee from an integrator after a large and important project is finished. That is an excellent way to make sure that project and technology details are fully transferred from the integrator to the end user.
Of course, if retaining project details is crucial, the best method is in-house execution.
Executing your next plant floor-ERP system integration project with in-house personnel can be the best way to go. “Companies who choose to have internal staff execute their integration projects benefit from technical ownership and clear lines of responsibility,” says Michael Gay, senior business consultant with Rockwell Automation. “In addition, they have an intimate understanding of their own processes,” adds Gay.
If internal staff is on hand, they will be cost-effective. “Plant personnel are readily available if a problem occurs, and overhead is covered, so they are less expensive to use than outside contractors,” notes Doug Rhodes, manager of the electrical power and automation group at system integrator Dayton & Knight, North Vancouver, British Columbia.
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