System integrator alternatives

A system integrator can specify, procure, and install the components of an automation system and make them work together with a client's production equipment. But independent integrators aren't the only available source of system integration services. Automation vendors have traditionally offered the engineering services required to integrate their own products into a client's plant.

06/01/2005


A system integrator can specify, procure, and install the components of an automation system and make them work together with a client's production equipment. But independent integrators aren't the only available source of system integration services.

Automation vendors have traditionally offered the engineering services required to integrate their own products into a client's plant. Some have even developed technical expertise with other vendors' products to tackle larger projects that require a wider range of technology than any single vendor can supply alone. A few will even cooperate with their competition if that's what it takes to land the job and procure a share of the associated product sales.

Distributors have also gotten into the system integration business as a means of bolstering their product sales. A deal that includes the services of a local engineer who can understand and install the product is often more appealing to a prospective client than the product alone. Moreover, many distributors have been feeling competitive pressure from low-cost vendors who take orders exclusively over the Web and ship directly to the end-user. By adding system integration services to the mix, some distributors are hoping to compete on value, even if they can't compete on price.

Large firms and small

Then there are the giant architectural, engineering, and construction (AE&C) firms capable of building entire factories—automation and all. They rarely describe themselves as "system integrators," but they can often achieve the same results. Some have entire divisions that do nothing but provide automation engineering services for their sister divisions' projects.

On a smaller scale, many custom machine builders can construct what amounts to a "factory in a box," with all the production equipment, controls, and operator interfaces integrated into a single unit. They often employ the same brands of hardware and software that traditional system integrators use, but the name on the box is theirs.

Individual engineers can provide some (though generally not all) of the services required to implement an integrated automation system. These are often former employees whose jobs as in-house engineers were eliminated to cut costs. Their former employers sometimes realize that no one else is quite as good at handling that particular factory's automation needs, so former employees return to the job as consultants.

Individual consultants may not know how to handle all aspects of all system integration projects, but what they know, they usually know well. Traditional system integrators often employ consultants when the job calls for engineers with specific or unique skills, especially skills related to a particular industry or technology.

Right combination

The ambitious end-user may find that employing the best talent from all of these sources is the way to go. An AE&C firm might be hired to construct the factory building itself, providing the necessary electrical and mechanical superstructure on which the automation system can be built.

An independent system integrator may then be assigned to work with a number of automation vendors and their local distributors to implement the controls for the manufacturing processes designed by the end-user. Some operations may require custom-made machines that must be automated and interfaced to the rest of the production line. And at every step, individual experts may be needed to tackle the jobs that require the most specialized skills.

Aside from managing such a complex effort, the hardest part is finding the right team members with all necessary industry experience, engineering specialties, and product expertise.

Control Engineering can help with that search. The online Automation Integrator Guide , at www.integratorguide.com or www.controleng.com/integrators , lists more than 1,100 automation engineering firms, from one-man garage shops through the largest AE&C firms. All have been qualified by Control Engineering editors as sources of at least some of the engineering services required to design and integrate industrial automation projects.

Vance VanDoren, Control Engineering





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