Although system integrators are the experts when it comes to designing and implementing factory automation systems, not all automation projects require outside assistance. Some projects can be executed just as well or better by the plant's in-house engineers. On the other hand, a plant manager with no in-house engineering staff to draw upon is pretty much obliged to outsource the automation work.

By Vance VanDoren July 1, 2004


Implent your own automation project

Get outside help

Do both: join forces

Sidebars: How to decide if a project should be in-house or outsourced

Although system integrators are the experts when it comes to designing and implementing factory automation systems, not all automation projects require outside assistance. Some projects can be executed just as well or better by the plant’s in-house engineers.On the other hand, a plant manager with no in-house engineering staff to draw upon is pretty much obliged to outsource the automation work. Tough decisions face the plant manager who has some, but not unlimited, in-house engineering resources.

Assess ROI

Stan Crockett, operations and logistics quality manager for residential systems at American Standard/Trane, has been through that decision-making process himself. Part of his job is to help implement, execute, and support the automated systems that Trane uses to manufacture home cooling system components.

Crockett suggests that the first step is to determine if there is a business case to be made for implementing the proposed automation system at all. That analysis should include costs, benefits, and the effects that the new system would have on the customer buying the finished product. “There’s no point in worrying about who’s going to do the work if the project isn’t worth doing,” he says.

If the project looks profitable and there are in-house engineers available to handle it, the next step is to determine if it would be cost-effective to give them the job or outsource it anyway. “You need to recognize that in-house engineers aren’t free,” Crockett advises. “And even if they can get the job done cheaper than a system integrator, outsourcing may still be more cost-effective in the long run.”

That is, if there is a payback to be had over time, the sooner the automation system becomes operational, the sooner the return on investment (ROI) can be realized. A system integrator working full time on a project will generally be able to complete it sooner than an in-house engineer working part time on the project and part time on his regular duties. If the time savings is enough to offset the added cost of the integrator’s services, outsourcing might be the way to go.

Not always necessary

System integrators would certainly agree that outsourcing is often a good idea, but most recognize that there are some projects that can be handled well enough in-house. Mark Hollebeek, controls and software manager at Designed Conveyor Systems of Michigan, likens the outsource vs. in-house debate to the question of hiring a contractor for home improvements vs. doing the work yourself. “If it’s something you’ve done before, go right ahead. If it’s going to take more than three hours to figure out, then hire an integrator. We work with this stuff all the time and will have all the right tools and resources. This means it gets done faster and nothing gets missed.”

Like the tip of an iceberg, the camera is just a small part of a machine vision system. Outsourcing an automated inspection project may be worth the cost just for the experience that a vision system integrator can bring to the project. Source: Control Engineering with data from United Sales and Service.

David Bentley, president of Bentley Automation, suggests, “If the end-user has experienced automation engineers familiar with their processes, then using them makes sense. Where I see this most often is when the end-user has people on staff that are intimately familiar with their unique manufacturing methods and machinery.” Similarly, Steve Jurovich, president of HiQ Technical Services, believes that “An end-user is probably warranted in designing and implementing his own system when the knowledge required to implement the automation system is proprietary, classified, or too esoteric to confer to an independent integrator.”

Irvan Connors, senior I/E control designer at Control By Design, agrees that in-house engineers may very well be able to handle their own automation projects, but only with proper planning and preparation. “The end-user must consider the amount of time required for front end planning and research. This also includes safety and process analysis. Time and manpower must also be allotted upon system completion to complete and organize all system documentation. If the end-user feels comfortable with all of this,

I would recommend in-house design and implementation.”

On the other hand …

“If the customer is expanding an existing system and has something existing that they can model, they can probably implement the necessary changes themselves,” adds Jerry List, vice president at Queen City Software. “On the other hand, if they are installing a new system or adding something that is different than anything they currently have, they should solicit the aid of a system integrator, either for a turn-key solution or, at a minimum, for system-design support. There is more to implementing an automation system than just connecting pieces of equipment together.”

Ron Weber, vice president at United Sales and Service, agrees. “When you think of a vision system, for example, you think of a camera application that needs to be programmed to check for parts. Simple enough. But in reality, it’s what you don’t see that could damage your production line and cost you money.” See the graph on this page, for some of the hidden dangers Weber encountered while implementing automated vision systems.

Mark Olinger, corporate communications manager for Control Systems International, believes that paying for a system integrator’s experience is often worth the cost. “Most end-users do not understand the work that goes into planning and executing a system integration project. Most experienced system integrators know how to sit down with a client and discuss their expectations and can determine if they are in line with their goal, budget, and schedule.”

Joint effort

Sometimes it pays to involve both the in-house engineers and a system integrator in the project. “I think the ideal situation exists when an integrator works closely with the end-user as a consultant on the project,” says Dave Rosenwasser, an applications manager for Integrated Industrial Technology.

He adds, “The end-user is responsible for specifying the requirements of the project, plant standards, and various operators preferences, but he can also tell the systems integrator what type of ideas or products have worked for them in the past and what hasn’t worked. This concurrent approach gives the end-user a direct influence into the engineering design portion of the project. It is up to the integrator to digest this information and draw on his more vast product and software knowledge to come up with a design that will work.”

Tony Kaczmarek, president of Kors Engineering agrees. “We often interact with end-users who simply don’t have the resources to allocate someone full time to automation, especially not new deployments. Kors works hand in hand with end-users to ensure that they at least understand the system, can provide minimum maintenance, and are able to identify controls issues and non-controls issues.”

Vendor view

Automation suppliers have a unique perspective on this issue. They receive orders whether the project is assigned to in-house engineers or a system integrator. Nonetheless, a project’s supplier is in a position to witness the successes and failures of both approaches first-hand.

Tim Roback, vertical marketing specialist for Rockwell Automation’s Global Manufacturing Solutions group, has seen four situations in which hiring a system integrator has proven to be a distinct advantage:

When an end-user is interested in infusing new methodologies or best practices into the organization, a system integrator may be a vehicle for that information or capability. Sometimes, a system integrator may have experience with new agency standards that helps an end-user understand and achieve compliance.

Many system integrators have specific domain expertise in niche areas, including standard methodologies and documentation, which allows them to complete a job faster and provides a solution that is easier to support.

For common applications, such as pasteurization, system integrators may have highly optimized, reusable solutions that can provide long-term economic advantages beyond the installed cost.

Sometimes the end-user’s in-house expertise is better spent developing standards for a common look and feel for human-machine interface screens across the plant.

Rich Huss, vice president and general manager of the Electric Drives and Controls division at Bosch Rexroth Corp., is even more enthusiastic about the benefits of outsourcing a project to a system integrator. “When it comes to drives and controls, an end-user should almost always use a systems integrator. Even though many users have competent and creative people on the plant floor, their top priority is to keep production going. Very few end-users can justify or afford to dedicate a talented engineer to take on an automation job full time, so it becomes a project by committee. Too many details get overlooked inadvertently in this type of scenario.”

Huss adds, “The only case where it really makes sense to implement your own automation system is on an upgraded drive-and-control package for an existing line, where the basic function of the machine doesn’t change and the upgrade for that machine is designed to be compatible with that operation by the controls manufacturer. This becomes even more practical if you have a number of stations or machines that need retrofitting over time and will use the same package and have the same basic functionality.”

Next steps

The question of which system integrator would be best suited for a particular project is another issue. The Control and Information System Integrators Association offers some advice in their “Guide for Selecting a Control and Information System Integrator.” For a brief overview, see “The Rating Game,” Control Engineering , May 2001, at .

For profiles on more than 1000+ automation system integrators, including the industries and areas they serve, their engineering specialties, and their product experience, see the online Automation Integrator Guide at / integrators.

How to decide if a project should be in-house or outsourced

Here are things to think about when deciding whether to execute an automation project in-house or outsource it to a system integrator.

Should we go it alone?

Is the required technology mature and well understood? Has it been applied to the automation of similar processes before?

Will this project have a higher return on investment than other jobs that the in-house engineers could be working on?

Do the in-house engineers have the experience and skills required to complete the project?

Would it be otherwise advantageous to develop more industrial automation expertise in-house?

Will the amount of work required fit into the in-house engineers’ existing workload?

Will the in-house engineers be able to dedicate entire days to the project without interruptions?

Can the in-house engineers finish the project within the timeframe dictated by business considerations?

Do the in-house engineers have access to the necessary technical tools, such as design software?

Does plant management need to maintain tight controls over project design and execution?

Will the project involve proprietary processes that must remain trade secrets?

Should we get help?

Will the proposed automation system be copied from another facility?

Will this system be reproduced at other facilities?

Will this system be expanded in the future?

Would an outside viewpoint help overcome internal disagreements and political issues?

Is the return on investment high enough to make the cost of quick delivery worth the extra expense of outside assistance?

Is there a system integrator available who is willing to commit to a fixed price bid for the work?

Is there a system integrator available who has done this kind of work before?

Are the in-house engineers (due to time constraints or lack of specific knowledge) more likely to provide an ad hoc solution rather than a well-designed and documented system?

Is there a hard-and-fast deadline for finishing the project?

SOURCE: Control Engineering with data from Nol-Tec Systems, NEDDAM Software Technologies, American Standard/Trane, TransAmerican Automation, and AIA Automation.