Systems Integration

What users want from system integrators in the future

Survey results and veteran voices show integrators at CSIA Executive Conference 2015 what services and capabilities they're going to require in coming years.

By Jim Montague, executive editor, Control

Most system integrators are obsessively focused on the needs of their end users right now, but everyone can get better at scoping out and planning for the future. To help system integrators identify and develop the skills they'll need, a trio of experts described what their future is likely to bring at the Control System Integrators Association's (CSIA) recent 2015 Executive Conference in Washington, D.C.

Craig Resnick, vice president at ARC Advisory Group, reported that a joint ARC/CSIA survey of end-user firms found they're employing common data infrastructures and their automation systems are converging with IT, and so they're going beyond the usual return on investment (ROI) to gauge the success of automation investments based on increased production and better analytics, their ability to help overcome manpower reductions, and dashboards that provide one version of the truth. Customers are also seeking certified SIs, who can help manage mobile workers with smartphones, cloud-computing services, big data, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), remote asset management and security, and the ongoing shift from reactive to preventive maintenance.

"ARC recommends helping your customers reduce downtime using predictive maintenance versus reactive maintenance," says Resnick. "Leverage technologies to better share information both internally and externally with your customers. Collaborate with automation suppliers who are competitors to help your customers solve connectivity problems between those suppliers, regardless of open technologies like OPC. Support remote monitoring, remote fixes and updates, especially for OEMs whose machines get shipped globally. Your customers' ultimate pain point is unscheduled downtime, so preventing it takes precedence over all else. Some positions eliminated at your customers, either by retirements, layoffs, or lack of skilled labor, can be replaced by system integrators."

Likewise, Tom Braydich, senior consultant at Matrix Technologies Inc. in Maumee, Ohio, adds that other SIs can build their case with clients by showing how their services can reduce inventory, obsolescence, scrap and expenses; continuously improve throughput and long-term benefits; and leverage products and process data into chances for new revenue. "End users assess their automation investment using several business drivers," says Braydich.

These drivers include:

  • Information visibility, which means knowing each plant's capabilities, and providing visibility up and down the manufacturing process;
  • Process agility, which is reacting quickly to changes in a client's plan, and maintaining real-time communications;
  • Material velocity, which is increasing plant throughput;
  • Common platforms, which is standardizing plant systems across the enterprise;
  • Complying with government regulations; Aligning MES and ERP programs for the best possible manufacturing;
  • Managing requirements for what, when, where and how many products to produce;
  • Understanding what production requires and if those capabilities are available, as well as tracking resources, status and history for labor, equipment and materials; and
  • Tracking results for attainment and compliance with goals such Six Sigma, efficiency, safety and quality."

For example, Dominique Wille, industrial systems director at Lafarge, reports his Paris-based cement and building materials firm runs an internal integration program for its production sites because its business is increasing quickly, and so it needs to avoid obsolescence that's coming on faster.

"System integration and speed are key," says Wille. "Everything should be by design to open and connect our sites to the world; make them compatible with nearly everything; enable remote configuration, programming and operations; and do it at low cost. We have 155 production sites worldwide, and they each had one to five SCADA systems and various operating systems. It was a mess, and so we needed a complex WAN intranet with pass-through protocols, open-source communication protocols for 10 years of long-term use, and pre-installed applications like Chrome or Java software because we can't go out and fix all these systems."

As a result, Lafarge eventually picked Ignition software from Inductive Automation as its local-architecture SCADA and application server. A pilot project was implemented at 19 sites, where Ignition servers handle plant lab equipment, plant automation, staff-related systems for operators and factory employees, email and phones, and communications with the corporate WAN. Fourteen of the sites are now operating, and five are in progress.

"We can control equipment and production at these sites from anywhere via the WAN, perform new on-site applications in response to business needs in one day, and deploy new SCADA applications or updates worldwide in 1-5 minutes," explains Wille. "The potential for upgrades is unlimited because we moved five to 20 former servers at each site over to one application server, which reduces complexity and costs by allowing real-time, worldwide application updates."

Now that Lafarge's pilot project is solving its supervisory layer, Wille adds that its system integration department is also developing common standards like IEC 61850 to make PLCs and remote I/O modules nearly plug-and-play in the future.

"Integration today means being able to connect anything, even what’s not yet on market," adds Wille. "This allows resources and architectures to focus on prototyping and implementation speed. You also need your organization to transition to combining both IT and automation, and making both competencies available. You have to prepare yourself to be part of the connected world or your competitor will get the margin."