Panacea Technologies, Montgomeryville, Pa.

Panacea Technologies is the 2017 System Integrator of the Year for the Small System Integrator Technology. Vice president Abhijit Jog shares some of the company's success stories and advice.

By CFE Media December 14, 2016

2017 System Integrator of the Year

Small System Integrator Category (up to $8 million system integration annual revenue)

2016 System Integrator Giants Rank: 79

Abhijit Jog, the vice president of projects for Panacea Technologies, talks about the current state of the system integration industry and talks about what he sees as a strong growth environment for 2017.

CFE Media: Congratulations on receiving the 2017 System Integrator of the Year award. What does this award mean to you and your organization?

Jog: It is a nice validation of the work we have done through the years, and it’s tough to put into words how much this recognition means to our team. I wish we could’ve filmed our office when we got the call we were chosen for this award. Everyone was aware we were supposed to get a call that week about the outcome, and I must’ve been making too much noise because the office caught on pretty quickly and everyone got really excited. We called everyone that was on-site for a project and let them know too. It was a really exciting day.

I think it was so exciting because it reinforced that there is merit in our approach to system integration. We’ve always had a bit of a different methodology to how Panacea is run. Whether it’s requiring our project managers stay up to date on technology and code alongside their project teams or turning projects away if we can’t guarantee success. We’ve always prided ourselves in our dedication to providing quality projects and utilizing new technologies in innovative ways.

In this industry sometimes there aren’t many feedback mechanisms for company success, so being honored with something like this is huge. It also comes on the year of our 20th anniversary as a company which makes it even more significant in our eyes. Our team knows that going forward it will be awesome to have a milestone like this in the Panacea narrative. We also know it will mean a lot to our clients that partner with us.

CFE Media: Right now, the system integration business continues to grow in importance to manufacturers looking to upgrade their plant operation. Assess the state of the system integration industry as a whole.

Jog: One aspect of our industry that is often overlooked is the sheer technical bandwidth that is required to do automation in today’s world. In addition to knowing the process or equipment being automated, engineers have to know a lot more than they used to about computer infrastructure and servers, their maintenance, virtualization, networking, firewalls, computer and network security, etc. It is virtually impossible to have these skillsets in smaller automation groups or in plants with only a few engineers.

Although technical demands are increasing, manufacturers are constantly looking to cut costs and continually downsize their in-house technical staff. When improvement projects are needed, the downsized manufacturing staff can’t free up resources to coordinate with A&E (architecture and engineering) firms, panel shops, hardware vendors, and service providers to deliver a project. There is little room to meet with vendors or perform their own research to learn about new technologies. There often isn’t even time available to attend training or learn about capabilities of existing technology so the staff’s technical ability has a ceiling of whatever is currently deployed on-site.

Due to all of this, manufacturers are looking to outsource a lot of services, and I’m sure every system integrator is experiencing this. Without someone to coordinate multiple service providers, clients want to be able to go to a system integrator and get everything from a single purchase order so to speak. They want network design, electrical work, panel fabrication, programming, documentation, and long-term support all from one location. The interesting thing, though, is that clients aren’t seeking out firms that have all of these capabilities under one roof but instead are looking for closely aligned system integrators that have the best partners and can act as an owner’s representative.

On top of this a large number of manufacturers are looking to do more than simply keep things running or migrate processes 1:1. There are a lot of new technologies coming out, and new technologies open up implementation possibilities. Due to technical staff downsizing they usually don’t have the horsepower to drive modernization efforts.

This is pushing manufacturers to seek automation partners and not simply automation service providers. They want partners that understand their industry and processes. They want partners that can talk to scientists, operators, engineers, and executives in a way that is valuable to their specific role. They want a partner that can provide a vision and then take that vision to physical implementation.

CFE Media: What are some of the key markets you are focused on? What are some of the specific solutions your customers are looking to implement today?

Jog: The key markets we focus on are pharmaceutical and life sciences, chemical, food and beverage (specializing in fermentation or batch processes), and industrial gases. There’s a lot of commonality in the solutions that they are asking for, and they center around modernization, Big Data, and intelligent design. Most of our current clients have some form of a virtualized infrastructure, but we are approached pretty heavily to help migrate physical infrastructures to virtual infrastructures, or at a base level to help design automation network infrastructure correctly.

We are also implementing a lot of thin client-based supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and human-machine interface (HMI) deployments. The coolest part of this is that a lot of these deployments are being done utilizing tablets as HMIs so that plant personnel can interact with their systems in a highly productive manner. This also makes client replacement and upgrades a lot easier in the future.

Another major solution request is for data historians and reporting. A lot of our clients are collecting an enormous amount of data and are looking for partners to help them contextualize it in a way they can act upon. Tying together islands of automation or even plants at an enterprise level has left behind fragmented historian deployments, so enterprise historian creation and associated reporting development have also been big requests.

Regardless of specific technology or concept there’s an overarching theme we see in solution requests. Clients are looking to connect their systems, generate meaningful data, and then present it in a way (or feed it back into their control system in a way) that drives productivity and improvement. They want to optimize existing systems, migrate high-risk legacy systems, and deploy innovative technologies that afford them additional capabilities. They want to do all this on a vendor independent, cloud-based or virtualized platform that they can interact with similar to how they interact with their consumer technology.

We have seen increasing interest from clients in deploying virtual controllers. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to continually change the hardware and the form factor of the control system when nothing else has really changed. Most of the I/O we are deploying is distributed and networked over Ethernet, and in distributed process plants there is no longer need to have the controller local to some group of I/O.

There’s an overwhelming amount of our clients who would love to see a move away from the traditional rack-based control and instead have control deployed on standard virtual infrastructures. A lot of the "utopian" scenarios we get asked for center around the ability to have your SCADA, historian, MES, and control layers all sitting in a server room deployed on a local, robust, high availability, hybrid cloud. We believe that this will be the future of our industry.

CFE Media: The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is an important strategy for manufacturers. What are your customers asking you about IIoT, and how are you reaching out to them with information?

Jog: Oddly enough, the first question we usually get is "what exactly is IIoT?" A lot of our clients will sit through a webinar or presentation and hear the same message that is some combination of "by year 20XX there will be some large amount of data collected that would fill up the equivalent of some huge number of warehouses" and "IIoT is connecting all your devices, generating all data possible, and having direct connections from top to bottom."

They get a lot of buzz words thrown at them, and it can be really hard to sift through sometimes. Not to mention some vendors are looking to monetize the movement by rehashing their technology with an Ethernet port and calling it IIoT-ready. It’s very analogous to the standalone smart devices that are flooding the consumer market. Having a Wi-Fi-enabled refrigerator is pretty cool, but does it make the quality of life better for a large number of people, and what security issues come from having it on your network? What if your IoT refrigerator could tell you what it was out of while you were shopping, but someone messed with the firmware to always say you were out of milk? Seems like a comical situation, but what if someone changed the firmware on an IIoT-ready measurement device so that it constantly transmitted an incorrect flow rate or temperature?

In our view manufacturing has been slowly moving to IIoT since the first networked computers were used for control. What has been changing recently is the granularity of that control, the richness of the data, and the availability of that access to external parties. We went from systems-level to device-level with the advent of networked I/O protocols such as HART, DeviceNet, etc. Now with IIoT we have richer and more accessible data available from the end devices. Essentially the number of data processing devices in your typical plant has been increasing exponentially.

We urge extreme caution in providing external access to these devices because it entails a lot of security risks to your automation infrastructure.

As an example, if some entity were to infect an IIoT device with a Stuxnet like malware by flashing its firmware it could create chaos in the entire manufacturing sector. The possibility is not that farfetched once you realize that an entity called the "Equation" group was able to infect hard drive firmware. Malware such as this would be difficult if not impossible to detect and could lie dormant for years. Although no big attack has happened yet it doesn’t mean it’s not a possibility in the future. With a large number of manufacturers creating a vast amount of IIoT devices it is difficult to see how security standards would be enforced.

Knowing this we go to our clients with what the end goal could possibly be. Our approach has not been to get caught up in the marketing hype, but to showcase real world applications, educate customers on security issues, and develop plans for adoption. As an example, we have a demo of a batch system running on tablets. We can actually video chat our Headquarters location so that our clients can go hands-on with the demo and see parts moving and processes happening miles away in our lab.

CFE Media: How quickly do you see IIoT being adopted in manufacturing? How quickly should it be adopted?

Jog: That is a very good question. From a security perspective, deployment of IIoT is challenging to the end users. While in the past there were only the automation controllers and HMI computers that had to be secured now they potentially have to deal with hundreds of end devices that have smarts built into them and also need to be secured. On a connected network a single device has the ability to affect the other devices on the same network. We in the automation community have a responsibility to the people that depend on us for their electricity, water, medicines, and other essentials of modern day life to get this right.

IIoT has so many possible implementation outcomes and technologies so it’s tough to narrow it to a single adoption rate. While we see a very large demand for adopting IIoT concepts the standards required to ensure that all these IIoT devices and appliances seamlessly work together are lacking. We need robust standards for:

  • Security
  • Data interchange
  • Interoperability between various vendor platforms, etc.

The high adoption rate of the Internet was driven by common standards, and if we want the Internet of Things to similarly take off there have to be common standards. It would also be a good idea to put in place security standards before widespread adoption instead of playing catchup in the future.

IIoT concepts should be adopted because they will drive a tremendous productivity boom, but standards need to be in place and platforms need to be thoroughly vetted to ensure that the risk/reward ratio is favorable.

CFE Media: How can system integrators help with IIoT adoption?

Jog: System integrators can help with IIoT adoption by first adopting it internally. We’ve found that by implementing a technology ourselves, or simulating it in our virtual environment, we can discover a lot of potential issues for clients and mitigate them well ahead of time.

Doing this also helps drive forward thinking conversations with clients. With something like IIoT specifically we see discovery conversations get sidetracked and then ended completely by implementation and technology fears.

If you want to drive successful conversations that lead to successful implementations you need to be an expert yourself. There’s a lot of noise right now surrounding IIoT and not all of it is good or has informational value. We, as system integrators, have a social responsibility to make sure we are implementing safe and secure systems. If you aren’t focused on this first and foremost, then you are not in the right business.

CFE Media: Manufacturing is evolving from a process-driven occupation to a data- and analytics-driven business. How has your training and implementation strategies changed in response to this new generation of plant equipment?

Jog: The evolution of manufacturing is changing a lot of things, and it’s noticeable across both sides of the system integrator relationship. We’ve been in the process space for a long time so the change isn’t recent for us, but there has been a change nonetheless.

For our internal training our engineers are diving deep into networking, virtualization, and data historization. They are studying our design standards and learning about the higher level concepts driving projects. We also notice that we can’t just use ladder logic because complex systems require more sophisticated programming methods like function blocks, structured text, and sequential function charts.

For implementation a lot of projects kick off with conversations around reporting requirements, desired data, data collection methods, and network infrastructure and work their way down to the process. This is in high contrast to process driven conversations seen years ago where the data and reporting were afterthoughts.

We see increasing deployment of PAT (process analytical technologies) with our clients. We are now using their data from hundreds of previous production cycles to control and correct their current systems. Data instead of operator experience is being used to improve their production.

CFE Media: As we face 2017, what’s your overall outlook for manufacturing?

Jog: Our outlook is strong right now. Based on the trends we are seeing we are acting accordingly. We’ve opened up an office in California and will be opening another office in 2017. We’ve expanded our service offering but stayed committed to the industry verticals we are best at. We made a big investment in evaluating new and innovative technologies in 2016 and are looking forward to implementing some of them in 2017. The growth we expect in 2017 should align well with the investments we made this past year, and we’re excited to get 2017 kicked off.

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.