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Automation supply chain: Realign and redesign with the times

Sept. 21, 2021
System integrator Matrix Technologies solves supply chain issues by collaborating sooner and closer with clients
2021 Automation supply chain update

This article is the first installment of the 2021 Automation supply chain update. 

View the rest of the series here.

Not stopping at facility and infrastructure changes, supply chains distorted by COVID-19 are also forcing projects and procedures to reorganize themselves.

“After the initial big hit of COVID-19, everyone in the automation and other industries saw the same lull, project callbacks, and spending halted on new ones. At the same time, many utilities and food and beverage processes had to keep running, pharmaceuticals had to refocus, and there was some pullback in oil and gas, too,” says Jim Mansfield, senior manager of manufacturing systems and solutions at Matrix Technologies Inc., a CSIA-certified system integrator in Maumee, Ohio. “The niceties stopped, and even projects looking at the Industrial Internet of things (IIoT) were put on hold for the first three to six months because they weren’t as important as making sure existing processes were resilient. Then, for the past year, everyone started doing IIoT, Industry 4.0 (I4.0) and digital transformation because so many people weren’t able to get into their plants and offices. I think a year from now there will be even more information in the cloud, which users will access with bidirectional protocols, network nodes and unified namespace software for storing data and context. These strategies will make automation simpler and reduce operating costs."

Mansfield reports that COVID-19's continuing impact on global supply chains is pushing users, system integrators and suppliers to get more involved sooner and collaborate more closely with their clients. "The upside is that more collaboration is what we wanted all along,” says Mansfield. “In this case, suppliers can’t make enough products because of delays, shortages or other issues. So, they’re getting involved with users earlier in their discovery and planning stages, which enables efficiency and cuts costs.”

Distributors at the table

Because the major hardware suppliers rely heavily on Chinese manufacturers, Mansfield adds that system integrators are caught in the middle between those suppliers and their own clients and end users. Fortunately, he reports this is where heads-up distributors can help. "Big distributors are more ingrained with knowing the importance of being at the table with system integrators when they do discovery and requirements, and research what software and hardware we'll need for successful projects," says Mansfield. "Our top seven distributors even bring us to their tables after they get a 50,000-foot view of some technologies and projects. During the past five years, we've seen distributors bring opportunities to the systems integrator community, and this activity has really picked up in the past 18 months. Where distributors used to simply sell products to system integrators, the closer relationships they've developed are inspiring distributors to tell system integrators when an end user has a possible project or needs maintenance. Consequently, we get called in as the technical expert on deploying certain technology stacks that enable control, SCADA, manufacturing execution systems (MES)/manufacturing operations management (MOM) and I4.0 solutions, which is a driving factor. This only happens with about two of 10 projects, but it's growing."

Totally transparent collaboration 

Matrix recently surveyed more than 300 staffers on whether they wanted to keep working at home or come back to their offices, and Mansfield adds the results were 50-50. As a result, Matrix is planning to further enable them to work at home and come in as needed.

“We already use Zoom and Microsoft Teams with our staff and clients, but we’re also using Miro online, collaborative, virtual whiteboard software. Everyone can hop on it, and we can run interactive planning sessions, just like a Post-It note whiteboard at the office,” says Mansfield. “We’ve also been using Traction Tools real-time collaboration software, which has a strong entrepreneurial-style tracking system. This lets users manage to-do lists, and create metric lists and scorecards for teams, so we can see how we’re moving the needle on tasks. We also use Microsoft Project for planning, but we run projects with agile and sprint methodologies, which are like scrum. They let users cascade pieces of tasks and fit our projects well."

Likewise, Mansfield adds that supply chains, distributors and suppliers are relying more on similar software and methods because they also need to collaborate earlier and closer with their clients and partners, which can mitigate some of the effects when lead times balloon. "We're being grossly transparent with our clients," says Mansfield. "We usually meet with them weekly, so we can get updates on when previous orders will come in. However, to be even more proactive, we're often meeting twice weekly."

For example, one Matrix client is in the middle of a two-year project to build a large, consumer packaged goods (CPG) application, but due to COVID-19, the lead time on its servers and other computer hardware recently jumped from four-six weeks to 18-20 weeks. "When lead times increase, it can help to break projects into subsets based on operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT) functions. This can help users order components further ahead of time, despite the engineering they still need. Detailed designs usually take about eight weeks, and then you'd order equipment and download software. Now, we can't wait that long for designs to get done, so we order hardware and software during the design process when we can. This lets us continue programming and downloading software, which can be added to the equipment when it arrives."

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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