Trends in system integration
Four system integration experts offer their insights on manufacturing and what lies ahead for the industry. System integrators are vital to sustaining growth in manufacturing.
After a decade of slow growth and recession, manufacturing finds itself today in the midst of a healthy turnaround, and the role of a system integrator is vital to sustaining that growth curve. The challenges of that growth is coming from and what technologies are in place to help drive that growth was the subject of CFE Media's discussions with 2014 System Integration Giants.
Matt Puskala, project manager, DMC Engineering, Chicago (ranked #60 in the 2014 SI Giants):
"Manufacturing seems pretty busy. We're starting to get bigger, but from a market share perspective. In general, we continue to have a lot of food and beverage work coming in, and packaging work. One thing worth noting is that we've seen more expansions of manufacturing into developing markets. In food and beverage in particular, you want to manufacture and package near where product is being sold. We've seen some interest in Africa.
"One of the trends we're seeing is integration into one central controller—doing motion and I/O all on one platform. We definitely run into companies who are looking to convert their legacy systems. Sometimes we see some really ancient stuff out there. If the hardware dies, they could potentially running to eBay to look for hardware. We've also seen a fair amount of expansion as well.
"It seems like more and more, in competitive global world, people are finally saying that we need start collecting data so we can see what systems are running well and which ones aren't. We need to light a fire under everyone from executives to the operators. We need to continue to refine or slice this at an even more nuanced level.
"There's more of a move toward agile manufacturing—configurable lines, programmed to be incredibly modular. We do see more complex vision systems these days—almost an agile vision system."
Dave Blaida, vice-president, Matrix Technologies, Maumee, OH (ranked #20 in the 2014 SI Giants):
"There are a few things: First, on networking side, we see a lot more confidence in Ethernet I/O systems and Ethernet drive systems. There was some hestitency to rely on Ethernet network in a production environment. Now we see them going full force into the Ethernet world.
"The challenge is to design the network properly. As more people rely on those networks, they must be very robust.
"The virtualization of computers is something else. All our major customers are doing all of that work in analysis of existing networks, consult on proper design and segmentation of those networks.
"There's a lot of stratification within industries about how people are addressing networks. Some are very concerned they will have to lockdown access to systems. You'll have to use the company laptop; you can't bring own in. Others have no security whatsoever. People are concerned on both external and internal security trips, as they bring in vendors and OEMs who have access to their network."
Ed Diehl, executive director, Concept Systems Inc, Albany, Oregon. (ranked #22 in the 2014 SI Giants):
"There's been a big surge in interest robotics-based technology, robotic work cells. We're finding that the price point for robots has come down and because skilled resources aren't available, companies who were not doing it before are now looking to automate.
"Intelligent robots using 3-D scanning are a little more adaptable. That's becoming a bigger part of what we do. We're also seeing some middle-market companies, companies that haven't automated in the past, looking at robotics.
"Our big push is to position ourselves to lead what we're calling this next era of automation. For us, that's providing more than just controls. Customers we're talking to don't have deep engineering resources. They don't have guys who can run the projects. They need us more than ever. They need that help, and they need it holistically, and we need to be able to offer that. It's becoming a much bigger part of our business.
"We're not doing a lot of pick and place, but an example would be if there were product randomly stacked or presented to robot and robot has to figure how to pick it up. If there's no pattern, the robot has to look at it and learn and go get it. Intelligence, that's where value-added is—when it comes to robots that can adapt to their environment.
"Retrofit is absolutely another big part of business. We're doing what we call a surgical retrofit. We just finished a food and beverage legacy DCS system and they know they have to replace it. For us it's a risk management situation. We need to manage the customer's risk so the system is only down in a scheduled period. You've got to know the technology, have to have an answer, and that's a big deal for these customers.
"They're going with platforms that are more open, and that brings up another piece: Big Data. That one's interesting; they know they need it, but they don't really know what questions to ask. Concept Systems set up another company focused on manufacturing intelligence, focused around solutions around manufacturing. We're developing solutions and products. We've found customers that say, 'I know I have to do this, but how do I do it?" That's why started the new company."
Rick Rhoten, vice-president of domestic operations for Mustang Automation & Control, Houston, TX (ranked #2 in the 2014 SI Giants):
One big area we're focused on is functional safety. We've identified that as an area that we can improve and increase business opportunity. We've working with the clients to establish the functional safety requirements, and that leads to the implementation of safety systems. It's been there for a while and continue to go forward.
As far as customer resources, with all of the activity lately, they're strained resources. What that's doing is putting a lot more emphasis on us to make sure the early phases of design lifecycles are addressed. Customers are looking to us to fill some of these gaps.