Control System Integrators Expand Their Horizons

Back before "control engineer" was ever used as a job title, process controls were the purview of mechanical engineers, who installed pneumatic feedback devices to regulate continuous variables such as temperatures, pressures, and flow rates. There were often hundreds, if not thousands, of such "loops" in a large processing facility, but each operated independently of the others and gener...

By Vance VanDoren, Control Engineering December 15, 2001
The catch in finding qualified integrators

Back before “control engineer” was ever used as a job title, process controls were the purview of mechanical engineers, who installed pneumatic feedback devices to regulate continuous variables such as temperatures, pressures, and flow rates.

There were often hundreds, if not thousands, of such “loops” in a large processing facility, but each operated independently of the others and generally required more effort to install than to configure. Electronic process controllers came on the scene in the 1960s, but these too were more often a matter of pliers and screwdrivers than software and algorithms.

Discrete controls also originated as a function of the traditional engineering disciplines. Mechanical cams and gearboxes, followed later by ladder-like networks of electrical relays, were the first devices used to automate a sequence of manufacturing operations. Such controllers could only be “programmed” by reshaping or rewiring their mechanical and electrical components.

The first computer-based controller, introduced in 1969, was much easier to configure, but it added little to the techniques available for discrete control. It was programmable, though not in a general-purpose computer language like Fortran or C. Instead, it operated according to a set of graphical instructions that mimicked the appearance and operation of old-fashioned relay ladders. Even that computer’s name—the programmable logic controller—was chosen to avoid the stigma of newfangled, unproven technology that electricians often regarded with suspicion.

Hardware history

The hardware-oriented history of control engineering is even more evident in the field of computer numerical controls (CNC). CNCs date back to December 1946 with the invention of a machine that could automatically direct a machine tool to cut helicopter rotor blades according to contours recorded digitally on a stack of punch cards. However, even this control technology relied primarily on computing hardware that simply translated digital contour data into the required path for one machine tool.

In the next few decades, the major CNC engineering effort went into making machine-control hardware more reliable and efficient. Today, the focus is on expanding the scope of control projects from individual machines run by factory-floor personnel to enterprise-wide applications that involve multiple machines and most departments in the organization, even vendors and customers from outside of the company. In the early 1960s, about 75% of the workforce in a CNC company were on the manufacturing floor. By the mid 1990s, 75% were in the office.

Similarly, about 80% of research and development engineers in the CNC field of the 1960s were hardware oriented. They designed flip-flops, counters, I/O interfaces, timers, and math units with transistors, rather than the vacuum tubes used in 1946. For the large machine tools, the first beneficiaries of numerical control, a rule of thumb stated that the control would cost about 15% of the total machine. Each new design over the years showed much greater capability with lower-cost hardware, but the 15% share for the controls remained constant because new features were always being added. Many involved new I/O devices or peripherals, but most were improvements in the sophistication of the controls and the software implementing them.

Paradigm shift

Similar trends have unfolded in the process and discrete control markets, especially with the advent of PC-based or “embedded” controls. An off-the-shelf PC from a local electronics store can run an entire factory, if equipped with the necessary I/O equipment, software, and programming.

This shift in control engineering, from an exercise in assembling the controller to designing and configuring the complete automation system, has resulted in the hardware being viewed as more of a commodity and the software as the high-technology element in the mix. It has also led to the proliferation of control system integrators (CSIs), whose job it is to make all the components of a client’s automated factory work together.

Many end-users and OEMs now rely on CSIs for contract engineering services because it can be more cost effective than maintaining a full-time control engineering staff in house.

A survey of the integrators listed in this and previous edition of the Automation Integrator Guide bears witness to this trend. Although hardware oriented skills, such as implementing and maintaining process controllers, instrumentation, and programmable controllers remain among the most widely reported engineering specialties, software and design-oriented skills, such as factory-wide automation, human-machine interfaces, and project management, are on the rise. “Computer software engineering” is now reported as an engineering specialty more than twice as often as “computer hardware engineering.”

CSIs’ views

A related study, “Industrial Automation and Control System Integrators” from Bull’s Eye Marketing (Fond du Lac, Wis.), also shows how control system integrators are becoming involved in more facets of industrial automation than just the equipment on the factory floor. The study was based on a survey of 227 CSI executives in the factory automation arena, representing both discrete and process control (68.5% and 31.5%, respectively). More than half the respondents were from integrators doing more than $2.5 million per year, and 44% employed more than 25 individuals. There were 14 industries in which at least 30% of the integrators had each done applications. The top three were food and beverage, material handling, and chemical.

The study divided the work that CSIs do into 19 categories, and the respondents were asked to rate for profitability with “0” being “low profitability,” “1” being “average profitability,” and “2” being “high profitability.” The mean ratings ranged from 0.59 to 1.34, indicating that some tasks were considered more than twice as profitable as others. The least profitable tasks included installation, start-up, maintenance, panel assembly, PLC application, and CNC application. These are all closely related to implementing one machine on the factory floor, and they’re fairly closely related to control hardware.

At the other extreme, the tasks of supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), networking and communications, distributed control systems (DCSs), system design, system consultation and custom programming were among the tasks reported as most profitable.

These results show that system integrators profit most from tasks involving engineering skills that are more sophisticated than turning a screwdriver.

High-tech projects, such as supervisory control, networking the enterprise, distributed control, and providing an overall system for the facility, also tend to involve upper layers of the factory’s management personnel, and not only the factory-floor supervisor.

The reasons behind this trend are driven by supply and demand. There is a direct relationship between the level of skill or knowledge required to complete a task and its profitability. There are many more engineers and technicians who know how to build panels, install electronics, and perform start-ups than those who know how to perform SCADA, networking or DCS work. The more highly skilled person is generally responsible for new and unique jobs. Once new tools ease the complexity of these tasks, these highly skilled professionals may then find new areas to conquer.

Looking to the future

Where might these new areas be in the years ahead? There is still much to be done at the highest enterprise level (enterprise resource planning and manufacturing execution systems, for example), but another fertile area is improving the way an organization interacts with its customers and vendors to maximize information exchange and minimize human error.

The study’s respondents give a hint about future work they anticipate in their views on specification authority. Respondents were asked to state the degree to which their decision-making influence or specification authority will change relative to the customer’s influence over the next five to seven years in each of the nine product categories shown in the accompanying chart.

In five product categories, CSIs expect to be much more influential in selecting vendors and products in the future, and these all tend to be growth products. With more traditional products, the study’s respondents expect the power of the purchase decision to remain similar, although those expecting an increase in influence far outstrip those expecting a decrease, even with less sophisticated products.

It seems that the CSIs have been working their way into more sophisticated applications over the last decade or so, and they see their influence increasing substantially now that they have considerable experience with these products. As their influence grows, CSIs are also expecting some very dramatic increases in the purchase volume of the nine categories over the next five years.

Not surprisingly, their forecasts show much higher purchasing increases among more profitable products, but they also project growth in all nine categories. It is also interesting to note that the midsize CSIs (with annual revenues of $1 to $4.9 million) expect substantially greater increases than do the larger ones ($5 million and up). Where exactly these trends will take the CSI industry in the future is anybody’s guess. Look for future editions of the Integrator Guide or search on-line at for clues.

For more information about “Industrial Automation and Control System Integrators,” contact Bull’s Eye Marketing at Bulls Eye Marketing@

The catch in finding qualified integrators

The increasing emphasis on software over hardware among CSIs’ clients has also had a downside for end-users. Some integrators now do just the design, configuration, and programming work, preferring to farm out panel construction and installation chores to subcontractors.

However, that isn’t the problem. In fact, subcontracting arrangements can be profitable to CSIs, who need to focus their attention on the high-tech tasks that they do best. End-users can benefit as well when specialists are brought into a project when they’re needed. The problem is that, without the need for equipment stocks or panel assembly facilities, there is now a very low cost of entry into the CSI business. Virtually anyone with a PC and a business card can theoretically start bidding on projects, with or without the benefit of any previous experience, financial backing or business sense.

The Control System Integrator Association (CSIA, Exton, Pa.) has recognized this problem, and has taken measures to address it with its “Registered Member” program. The idea is to provide an auditing service to provide differentiation in qualifications.

Integrators that pass the third-party examiner’s rigorous review are entitled to style themselves as “Registered Members” of the CSIA and display the CSIA’s seal of approval. The CSIA also offers educational materials that integrators can share with their clients to explain the benefits of considering criteria, such as CSIA registered membership, rather than only considering the low bid. For more details see the following story, “The Control System Integrator Quest.”