Systems integrators apply technology to very human endeavors

As the workplace changes, the integration imperative persists and leads to innovation for the System Integrator of the Year winners.

By Kevin Parker December 13, 2023

System integration insights

  • System integrators (SIs) vary by revenue size, regional scope, industry focus, and specialization in control systems, operations, or business enterprise functions.
  • SIs guide manufacturers through smart manufacturing strategies, addressing hurdles like “pilot purgatory” and technology awareness gaps.
  • Tools and methodologies evolve, emphasizing CSIA best practices, agile approaches, Lean philosophy, and digital transformation for project management.

Systems integrators are a diverse lot. The same is true of the three winners of the Control Engineering and Plant Engineering System Integrator of the Year awards. To start, the winners occupy different size categories based on revenue. Further, integrators may be regional, national or international. They may focus on specific vertical industries, such as discrete automotive parts manufacturing or batch-process production in food & beverage. Finally, their focus may be on the control system, operations management or business enterprise, or some combination of the three.

At the same time, integrators hold much in common. Below please find some trenchant comments on topics of current interest from this year’s system integrators of the year. We salute and thank them.

What it’s all about

“Automation, at its heart, is about using technology to deliver resources and goods to the world, and some of what we are most proud of stems from the impact we’ve been able to make,” said Eric Smith, president of APCO Inc., North Salt Lake, Utah, winner of the System Integrator of the Year Award in the small system integrator category, i.e., under $5 million in SI-related revenue.

“Something that comes to mind is the impact we have had within the state of Utah on both fresh water and water reclamation,” Smith said. “A large percentage of the state’s population gets water from systems that we have had an important hand in setting up. That isn’t to say that there aren’t many other people and organizations that are primarily responsible, but to the extent we’ve played a part it’s something we’re proud of and we are thankful for our association with those organizations.”

APCO also participates in include petroleum refining, mining, and manufacturing in the medical and food industries.

APCO leadership team: Scott White, vice president; Dale Smith, chairman of the board; Cameron Price, operations manager; Joshua Clarke, Manufacturing & Design Manager; Eric Smith, president.

APCO leadership team: Scott White, vice president; Dale Smith, chairman of the board; Cameron Price, operations manager; Joshua Clarke, Manufacturing & Design Manager; Eric Smith, president. Courtesy: APCO

“Being recognized and receiving this award is significant. It is tangible representation that our core values of character, service, excellence, passion, creativity, trust and teamwork are being lived out in day-to-day work recognized by our clients, suppliers and the industry. It reflects our mission statement: Putting innovation to work and making a positive impact on the quality of life.” said Ron Rich, CEO, Polytron, winner in the medium system integrator category of $5 to $30 million in SI related revenue annually.

Tools of the trade

With the proliferation of the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), cloud computing and analytics, not to mention the dawn of AI-based applications, some experts say there’s more technology innovation coming to light at the moment than any time since the introduction of programmable logic controllers (PLC), enterprise resources planning (ERP) and computer-aided design (CAD) in the 1980s.

As the technology has evolved, the tools that a systems integrator uses to accomplish client projects, as well as run its business, changes as well. “We see awareness building about important concepts related to IT and OT, and I think it is great that more people are getting cross-training on understanding the differences between the two,” said Smith.

Manufacturing environments have always focused on maximizing both uptime and efficiency, said Daren Dieleman, VP of operations, Interstates, winner in the large system integrator category for companies with annual SI-related revenues of $30 million or more.

“With the OT environment connected, the overall drivers of uptime and efficiency remain but also include the need to protect and understand data flowing from devices. Clients ask integrators to shield their data and facilities from cybersecurity threats, while simultaneously asking them to organize and interpret data from an increasing density of devices and sensors into actionable intelligence,” said Dieleman.

Interstates leadership team, from left to right: Brett Van Wyk, director of client support; Scott Peterson, CEO; Daren Dieleman, VP of operations; and Michael De Boer, director of operations.

Interstates leadership team, from left to right: Brett Van Wyk, director of client support; Scott Peterson, CEO; Daren Dieleman, VP of operations; and Michael De Boer, director of operations. Courtesy: Interstates

The expectations surrounding this activity are central to success, Dieleman added. They include clear communication between IT, OT, and integrator; definition of roles and responsibilities for all parties; onboarding of human and device resources; and assistance in selecting the right infrastructure to accommodate the goals of all parties.

In recent years, “We’ve grown the number of manufacturing clients that we’re helping develop and implement their long term, sustainable Smart Manufacturing strategy and journey,” said Richard Phillips, director of smart manufacturing, Polytron.

Too many manufacturers struggle with how they should start this journey, not to mention lack of awareness of best practices, technologies to use and architecture, Phillips said. “Many have experienced the ‘pilot purgatory’ phenomenon and hesitate to continue funding these initiatives though they realize success is needed to stay competitive.”

Supply chain constraints

The global supply chain, in the wake of the pandemic, has had a significant impact on SI clients and projects. Interstates’ Dieleman pointed to his company’s use of a dedicated supply chain team that supports the system integrator’s projects and clients and that has proved an asset in recent years. “We have seen projects get delayed, but in general, we continue to work closely with our vendors, partners, and clients to ensure projects can be completed as planned.”

Dieleman shared some specific ways and methods to address supply chain challenges:

  • Standardization: allows for equipment to be purchased early before a detailed design is accomplished. It can shorten the design time needed to specify a custom equipment order.

  • Flexible product selection: Work with vendors to select equipment options that minimize lead time impacts or actually in stock. Small changes to features can make a large impact on availability.

  • System design approach: For electrical and control systems, consider what you can do to allow work to proceed despite long lead times for equipment.

Rande Allen, VP of sales at Polytron, said project managers now aggressively assess and manage supply chain risks as part of project planning. This involves identifying potential vulnerabilities, establishing contingency plans, and diversifying supply chain sources to mitigate future disruptions.

Allen also noted that to mitigate supply chain challenges, clients are more receptive to digital solutions such as supply chain planning and execution software, predictive analytics and real-time visibility tools. The technologies optimize inventory, enhance demand forecasting and improve overall supply chain resilience.

Polytron leadership team, from left to right: Richard Phillips, director, smart manufacturing; Ron Rich, CEO; Rande Allen, VP, sales; Damian Stahl, VP operations.

Polytron leadership team, from left to right: Richard Phillips, director, smart manufacturing; Ron Rich, CEO; Rande Allen, VP, sales; Damian Stahl, VP operations. Courtesy: Polytron

“It is important for project managers to closely monitor supply chain issues, adapt their project plans accordingly and establish strong communication channels with suppliers and stakeholders to address any potential impacts on project delivery and success,” Allen said.

Management techniques

Automation systems sit at the heart of customer processes, Smith said. “The control system is the glue that holds the process together as the eyes and ears of the operations staff. Solid relationships are important to reduce friction and ensure problems are solved effectively and quickly, but particularly with the critical nature of the control system in enabling system function.

Working with an integrator looking after a customer’s best interest can make all the difference in making good decisions that will have a long-term impact for the client. “We are the clients’ advocate, supporting their decision making with a frank and honest relationship,” Smith said.

Interstates’ Dieleman, like all engineering project managers, has thought about the management of complex projects. “Interstates is a process-driven organization and has benefitted from its involvement in the Control Systems Integrator Association (CSIA),” he said. “We have been certified seven times by CSIA.”

In addition, he said, Interstates developed a 22-step project methodology that covers every aspect of a project, from project initialization through project planning, execution, monitoring, controlling and closing. Each step in the methodology includes template meeting agendas and forms and instructions on locations where deliverables should be stored.

Over time, the methodology has evolved, including more steps and use of project management software to allow for electronic communications storage and retrieval. These tools, Dieleman said, are tied to the accounting and business intelligence systems, delivering real-time data to project managers and senior leadership.

“These project management tools, along with the rest of CSIA’s best practices, allowed us to adjust project delivery to incorporate more lean and agile concepts,” Dieleman said.

In addition, the world has changed the last few years since the pandemic, and how systems integrators execute projects has changed as well.

Interstates was already undergoing its own digital transformation prior to the pandemic, Dieleman said, but “COVID accelerated the pace. For example, we now use Microsoft Teams for most team collaboration and communication. All of our project support tools and systems are accessible through the cloud. We also have a 20% remote workforce, and another 50% of our people work in a hybrid manner, combining both remote and office components.”

Of course, added Polytron’s Allen, the waterfall methodology is the most common in industry when it comes to more traditional projects, involving sequential phases where each phase is completed before moving to the next. It emphasizes thorough planning and documentation.

However, depending on the project type and timeline, other methodologies include the following:

  • Agile methodology: Agile methodologies, such as Scrum and Kanban, prioritize flexibility, collaboration and iterative development. They focus on delivering value to customers in shorter cycles, allowing for frequent feedback and adaptation.

  • Lean philosophy: The Lean approach aims to eliminate waste, optimize processes, and deliver value efficiently. It emphasizes continuous improvement and customer-centricity.

  • Six Sigma: Six Sigma focuses on reducing defects and improving quality by utilizing statistical analysis and process improvement techniques. It aims to minimize variations and enhance process efficiency.

With “pervasive digitization” in recent years, these methodologies and philosophies have evolved, Allen said.

“For example, agile methodologies have gained significant popularity due to their ability to adapt to changing digital landscapes,” he said. “Agile principles have been embraced beyond software development, extending to various industries and projects, including ours.”

Further, digitization has facilitated more collaborative project management approaches. Teams now collaborate in real-time across different locations. Data availability leads to increased emphasis on data-driven decision-making.

Automation and AI technologies have transformed project management by automating repetitive tasks, improving efficiency and enabling predictive capabilities. Project managers can leverage these technologies to streamline processes and enhance project outcomes. The digitization of projects has led to increased pressure for rapid and continuous delivery, Allen concluded, but are also enabling project managers to adapt to the dynamic and fast-paced digital landscape.

People matters

In a world where many people spend the best part of their day in front of a computer screen, system integration still (seeing as it brings together in a one-time event a menu of role-defined individuals to execute a project in a defined environment) requires human involvement that is highly defined but at the same time requires flexibility as much as anything.

“The best thing our young engineers have going for them is great mentors,” said Smith. “We believe in building up those around us and really emphasize this as a core within our company. I think the new engineers feel this and benefit from the wealth of experience that their peers have to offer. Additionally, we provide both internal and external training aligned with their role. Specific training may be related to PLCs, HMI packages and best practices, networking, cybersecurity, electronics, regulatory control and data science, to name a few.”

Author Bio: Senior contributing editor, CFE Media