Matrix Technologies, Maumee, Ohio

A member of the Control Engineering System Integrator Hall of Fame, Matrix Technologies continues to build on its long history of service to the integrator community. While the company is proud of its growth in revenue, it also spent the last four years improving its internal employee relations program. See video discussion below.

By CFE Media December 10, 2015

A member of the Control Engineering System Integrator Hall of Fame, Matrix Technologies continues to build on its long history of service to the integrator community. While the company is proud of its growth in revenue, it also spent the last four years improving its internal employee relations program. "When you really analyze any service organization, the single biggest factor in their success is the people who provide the services," said David Bishop, president and CEO. Bishop discussed with CFE Media not only what makes a good integration project, but also what makes a good system integrator customer.

CFE Media: What is the one thing plant management can do to help ensure a successful integration process?

Bishop: Engagement and authority—the most important factors in the success of any project, integration or otherwise, is that there is clear leadership and engagement on the customer side. This leader needs to be engaged for the duration of the project, and be given the authority to make the final decision on any aspect of the project.

Two of the biggest challenges we face on projects are related to this level of engagement and authority. When the plant representative is disinterested in the project or lacks authority to make decisions, the system integrator does not get clear direction and the results will be questionable. Flippant decisions or decisions by committee often result in delays on the project or unhappy customers with little buy-in from the end users at the plant. The plant representative must be the champion among the plant team and must have ultimate decision-making authority so that project scope and schedules are not affected.

Beyond these items, the second most important related factor is keeping the project lead consistent throughout the project. When personnel change midstream, it usually leads to less-than-perfect project results.

CFE Media: What are you customers looking for in automation projects? In turn, what should they be looking for in terms of automation in their plants?

Bishop: Providing a project on time and within budget is the most important result our customers expect.

After that, there are three main themes we see in the marketplace today:

  1. Network reliability and security
  2. Personnel and equipment safety
  3. Support and service.

As networks become pervasive in the manufacturing environment, it is becoming even more important that those networks be properly designed, implemented, and maintained to ensure reliability and security. Many facilities today rely on their networks to function properly or risk lost production. Security of networks to protect from both internal and external threats is key to maintaining reliable operation and protection of intellectual property. Our customers expect us to have this skill set and help guide them in the right implementation.

The past several years have seen the heightened focus on safety systems from both an equipment and personnel safety standpoint. Systems must be protected from damage, and personnel must be kept safe and secure. Lapses in either area can lead to lost production, fines, and more. Our customers are asking for the latest in safety evaluation and skills needed to implement the best-in-class solution.

Finally, there has been a loss of technical resources and subsequent loss of skill sets at the plant level while at the same time there are continuing technical advances in the systems that are being installed at the plant. When these two issues converge, our customers see more frequent and longer downtime when problems occur on the equipment. They need our support to help them keep their systems running at top performance and help them troubleshoot less common problems.

CFE Media: Describe the project that provided your team with the most satisfaction in the past year. What was the big challenge, and how did your team overcome that challenge?

Bishop: It’s difficult to pick a single project—it seems that each one has challenges, and our team gets a lot of satisfaction when the project is complete with a satisfied customer. If we have to pick one, it would be the MedImmune Process Control System (PCS) Split and Unified Computing System (UCS) Installation. This was a large project with a big team and a reasonable schedule. The big challenge was incorporating automation products in a virtual-server environment to such an extensive scale (hundreds of servers). The team succeeded through a lot of hard work, methodical testing, and communicating with the end users and supporting vendors to coordinate what needed to be done.

The PCS split project entailed taking a very large Rockwell control system and splitting it into logical sections that would allow configuration changes and upgrades when required without affecting other areas of the operation. The original design of the PCS system used a single Rockwell FactoryTalk directory that spanned more than 30 servers. This design did not allow the security to be easily divided into areas that were required. An additional requirement was to have historical data collected per area of the plant as opposed to one server for all of the historical data.

The challenge to implementing these changes lay in keeping the current control system operating while migrating to the new system, and simultaneously installing a new network infrastructure. It was decided that virtualization was going to be the only way to succeed with this project, and splitting the virtualization across many servers would hinder the progress for keeping data flow minimized within the virtualization cores. To handle the tremendous load, a pair of Cisco Unified Computing Systems (UCS) was chosen to hold all of the virtual computers.

In addition to the requirements above, the customer was looking for a final system that performed more efficiently than the existing system. To accomplish this, the virtual machines were configured to run only a single Rockwell software application to avoid any competition for resources. Additionally, redundant application servers were used wherever possible.

The end result was a control system that was divided into five different FactoryTalk directories per logical area based on the operational flow of the plant. Each plant area now has its own FT View, FT Batch, FT Historian, data servers, and terminal servers as required. This change made it possible for any one area to be modified while production was running in other parts of the plant.

The design used template servers for each type of virtual machine. This allowed for an easy deployment of testing and training environments at the facility. When complete, the running system along with the two simulation systems was comprised of more than 200 virtual servers on one UCS system.

CFE Media: What are the key areas of opportunity for manufacturers to improve their operational efficiency?

Bishop: Measure performance. As the old adage goes, you can’t control what you don’t measure, so the starting point is to put systems in place to measure the performance of your production equipment. In many cases, plants have historians and other types of data collection that are already available, but they don’t know the best way to take advantage of those systems to improve their operations.

Starting with simple metrics and growing the systems from there is the best way to gain buy-in and backing from plant management. Once the power of these systems is known, the justification for additional investment in them is simple.

CFE Media: What are the best attributes of a great manufacturer? What common thread runs through the best clients you have that makes them successful?

Bishop: Here are some general traits of our best customers:

1. Strong engineering/automation group: There needs to be a key individual or organization that manages all the projects for the customer. This leads to a clear direction and project methodology that will be repeatable and sustainable.

2. Standards: Our best customers have invested heavily in setting standards for their automation and information systems and work diligently to enforce those standards. Setting clear expectations in the project requirements ensures that the customer will get what they want and that the proposals they receive will be evaluated on an even playing field.

3. Long-term vision: Having a long-term plan in terms of their automation and information systems, as well as a solid overall business plan and goals, results in a great customer.

4. Partnership and mutuality: Our best relationships are with those customers that have established the prior three items and then look for strong partners that will help them implement them across their organization. This type of arrangement helps lead to a win-win arrangement between the customer and the integrator.

CFE Media: What is your overall outlook for 2016?

Bishop: Our outlook for this fiscal year is one focused on moderate top-line growth, but improvement in profit margin. The market has changed a bit in recent years, in that our customers have moved past the major investments they were making after the recent recession (using built-up cash reserves) and are more focused on smaller process improvement and product-line introductions.

There are a few key areas we are focused on for 2016:

Employee retention: One of the biggest pressures we face in our industry is the extremely tight job market. Attracting and retaining top talent is an important focus.

Process improvement: To improve our profitability, it is important to focus on streamlining our internal processes to make them more efficient. From the proposal process to design, implementation and testing, we are looking for ways to gain efficiency and improve margins while maintaining the quality we always want to deliver.

Expanded offerings: We’ll look to broaden our offerings to customers even further so that we can gain additional services and supply greater overall value. These include more turnkey projects and service/support, for example.

Customer streamlining: Getting closer to our top customers and stepping away from marginal customers will help us achieve our profit goals while reducing frustration caused by unsophisticated buyers.

ONLINE extra

– Learn more about the other 2016 System Integrators of the Year below as well as a roundtable video discussion with all of the winners.

Author Bio: Since its founding in 2010, CFE Media and Technology has provided engineers in manufacturing, commercial and industrial buildings, and manufacturing control systems with the knowledge they need to improve their operational efficiency. CFE delivers the right information at the right time around the world through a variety of platforms.