System integrator relationships key to manufacturers’ competitive advantage
Manufacturers must keep improving performance and efficiency in their plants to compete globally. A potential source of competitive advantage manufacturers often overlook is their relationship with system integrators. We believe manufacturers who build deep, strategic partnerships with a leading integrator will have a competitive advantage over others who maintain a traditional arms-length, transactional approach.
Many manufacturers still run automation projects the same way they have for years: They develop a scope with their internal team, send out a request for proposal (RFP) to qualified suppliers, select the lowest bid, then repeat for each project. Manufacturers that use this approach leave substantial value on the table, which could be unlocked through a different type of relationship with an integrator.
Instead, manufacturers should seek to develop an integrator relationship that goes well beyond the scope of an individual project. To maximize value, the integrator should be a partner from project concept all the way through production support, plant floor analysis and machine optimization. At Automationnth, we refer to this role as an “architect of automation.”
Skin in the game
We know a story of a machine builder who had a project turn sour because its customer had unrealistic expectations about the cycle time the machine could achieve. The customer had unrealistic expectations because it had engaged an automation consultant before the project to deliver a report with an estimated cycle time and output that could be achieved with automation. The customer put the consultant’s estimates into its project requirements. The machine builder had concerns about these expectations, but took the project anyway. When it turned out the machine builder’s concerns were valid and it was not possible to achieve the desired cycle time, the customer pointed to the consultant’s report and said it was possible. The project resulted in litigation between the two parties.
Why did the project end up in this mess? One reason is the automation consultant had no “skin in the game” — they were not exposed to the consequences of their advice, and therefore did not have incentive to understand the risks involved and why a machine may not work to its theoretical maximum.
Having skin in the game matters in other phases of projects, too. An engaged integrator throughout the creation of a project’s scope, commissioning, production support, preventive maintenance and machine optimization will have the most skin in the game — if the automation architect makes a mistake in one phase, it will have to face the consequences and rectify it.
Tighter and faster feedback loops
Tight and fast feedback loops are an important way to drive continuous improvement. For example, if a machine is installed without also having a system that measures the efficiency of the machine production, how can they know what’s causing variances in output or if there’s an easy way to boost efficiency? A company can’t optimize performance if it doesn’t have a feedback loop to measure performance, learn and change (see Figure 1).
A traditional transactional approach to automation where an integrator commissions a single system and then leaves limits the integrator’s ability to help the manufacturer learn and adjust. If an integrator stays on to help with post-production support and machine performance analysis, it will drive continuous improvement on the machine and allows the team to apply the knowledge gained about production to improve the way it approaches the next project. This closes the feedback loop.
One of the most important steps in a successful automation project is understanding the manufacturers’ processes. At Automationnth, we strive to know customers’ processes better than they do and believe this results in superior outcomes. With a deep partnership, knowledge of a manufacturer’s processes, requirements, systems and goals accumulate over time. Some of this knowledge may be considered “tribal” in it is undocumented and learned with time and experience. By accumulating tribal knowledge, an integrator may be able to create innovative automation approaches that achieve the manufacturer’s goals in a way that could not be envisioned with the requirements in an RFP. The tribal knowledge also may reduce the risk of something slipping through the cracks that was mistakenly left out of an RFP.
Many Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) capabilities are derived from integrating control platform properties such as motion control, sequence control, logic control, programming and human-machine interface (HMI) configurations, and integrating control system functionalities such as remote access, condition monitoring, remote diagnostics and so on across the plant (see Figure 2). An integrated control platform will enable companies to use IIoT capabilities to achieve plant-wide process optimization and an enhanced user experience. A tightly integrated platform is best achieved through a deep partnership with an integrator that looks across all plants and systems.
For example, implementation of predictive analytics works by identifying a problem, generating a hypothesis, gathering the data that might be relevant to prove the hypothesis, and then using algorithms to analyze the data. The result will explain the root cause of problems, which can then be used to predict when they might happen in the future. While implementing predictive analytics can result in an immense amount of value, it is well outside the normal RFP process and needs a strong strategic integrator partnership to succeed.
About the Certified Automation Partner program
At Automationnth, we believe deep strategic partnerships are in the best interest of manufacturers and have developed our service offerings accordingly. We strive to be our customers’ “architect of automation” and help turn our customers’ vision and objectives into reality. As a result, our services now include pre-project strategic consultation on automation architecture, post-project production support, machine analytics, networking and training. We have gone so far as to create a new program to help manufacturers even if we are not involved in a project at all.
We call this our Certified Automation Partner (CAP) program. We created this program because purchasing automation equipment is a challenging task. Automation is very complex and technical, and it is difficult to discern the differences between the capabilities of automation suppliers. Choosing the wrong supplier can have catastrophic consequences. For that reason, we qualify automation companies through a rigorous assessment process using our intimate knowledge of automation industry best practices. If the automation company qualifies, they become a Certified Automation Partner.
The Certified Automation Partner program enables Automationnth to work with manufacturers to recommend specific partners for a project based on their fit with the application’s requirements. In some cases, we may have no direct involvement after we help the manufacturer choose a partner.
However, if it is appropriate, Automationnth can provide turnkey automation by pairing our controls engineering and project management expertise with the mechanical capabilities of a Certified Partner. Depending on the situation, we can either play the role of prime or be a sub to a Certified Partner.
The CAP program benefits manufacturers because Automationnth can help refine the scope and requirements of an automation project to reduce execution risk and eliminate unnecessary costs. If we lead the controls engineering portion of a project, a manufacturer can have consistent controls architecture, templates and IIoT capabilities across multiple automation systems, regardless of which supplier builds the machine or the scale of the system.
The CAP program is a result of our philosophy that deep, strategic partnerships are in the best interest of all parties, and we should help manufacturers address their biggest problems even if we don’t stand to directly benefit.
Manufacturers interested in taking your integrator relationship to the next level should take the following steps:
- Hold a sit-down meeting with the integrator to discuss organizational goals and initiatives and ways to create value from a partnership.
- Include the integrator as early in projects as possible — even if it’s an idea. During the design stage, the integrator can help ensure your product is optimized for manufacturability and reduce risk from the project execution stage (see Figure 3).
- Start using an integrator across the entire lifecycle of a project, including optimization of existing capital.
It is our strong belief that if manufacturers go through these steps to partner with a leading integrator, they will deliver superior results.
Greg Young is the vice president of Business Administration at Automationnth.
Automationnth is a member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA).