Who’s Who in Automation System Integration

By Vance VanDoren March 1, 1999

Many different companies contribute to a typical system integration project. The following list divides them into several broad categories and describes the general functions of each. These are by no means hard and fast job descriptions. Most companies fit more than one definition, and some switch from category to category as their clients’ needs change. Still others combine their services under a single banner for clients that require a single point of contact. For more information about 1000 automation integrators of all kinds, log on to the 1999 Automation Integrator Guide .

Application engineers – Application engineers that work for vendors or their distributors generally concentrate on applying the vendor’s equipment to a client’s project. Some application engineering departments will offer design and implementation services as well; others will provide little more than technical advice. A few will even work with products from competing vendors if the client so desires.

Architect engineers (A&Es) – A&E firms often provide multi-discipline design services for an automation project, but generally do not become involved with the actual implementation. A&Es typically concentrate on designing the buildings and the layout of the automated facility, though some design control systems as well.

Consulting engineers – Consulting companies range in size from single individuals to huge multi-national corporations. They provide consulting and design services in specific technical disciplines such as civil, mechanical, electrical, and automation engineering. Larger consulting firms may also assume ultimate responsibility for completing the entire project. Individual consultants and smaller consulting firms generally do not.

Electrical contractors – Electricians and technicians working for electrical contractors actually run the wires and hook up the electrical equipment specified in the project’s design. They may also design and build the required control panels.

Engineering constructors (E/Cs) – E/C firms are similar to A&Es, but they provide construction management services as well. Though they may serve as the general contractor for a complete turnkey automation project, they generally delegate specific design and implementation tasks to specialized subcontractors.

Independent system integrators, systems houses – To varying degrees, system integrators work on every aspect of an automation project other than actually manufacturing the control equipment. They may design and implement the control system required by an A&E’s overall plant design. They may design the panels and electrical systems that the electrical contractor implements. They may perform all of these functions themselves or subcontract pieces of a project to specialists such as panel shops and software houses. A system integrator generally assumes ultimate responsibility for completing the entire project from initial consultation through final check-out. Truly independent integrators do so without favoring any particular vendor’s products.

Instrumentation contractors – These are the technicians who calibrate and install the field instrumentation at the foundation of every automation system. Some work for E/Cs, A&Es, electrical contractors, process engineers, and system integrators; but many work directly for the end user. They may also provide low voltage electrical engineering services.

Machine builders, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) – Some automation projects require specialized machinery or other equipment with built-in control systems. Specialty machine builders and OEMs generally perform the software and hardware integration for the custom equipment they fabricate. Some machine builders may also integrate their custom control systems into the overall plant control system.

Panel shops, panel builders – Panel builders assemble a project’s control equipment into the cabinets or ‘panels’ that sit next to the automated machinery. Many system integrators, machine builders, and OEMs maintain their own in-house panel shops. Other independent panel shops execute designs supplied by system integrator or A&Es.

Plant/process engineering contractors – These engineering firms can build material processing facilities or entire processing plants for their clients. They may construct the required control systems themselves or delegate that job to a subcontractor such as a system integrator or a vendor’s application engineering department.

Service and repair technicians – Technical service companies such as these generally work on repairing or maintaining existing equipment, including a plant’s control system. Some may also contract their services to install, commission, and perhaps even design new control systems. They may work for a system integrator, a panel shop, a distributor, or an electrical contractor; or they may work directly for the end user.

Software houses, contract programmers – Automation software houses provide engineers to program the computers required for an automation project (PLCs and DCSs for control; PCs for data acquisition, control, and simulation; business systems for data analysis and archiving; etc.). They may use their own software products or specialize in configuring commercial software packages. Many software houses are also value added resellers.

Value added resellers (VARs), value added distributors (VADs) – VARs buy products from a vendor, add something of value, and resell the complete package to the end user. The value they add may be other compatible products or services such as software configuration, troubleshooting, or complete system integration. VARs generally focus on a particular vendor’s products or a particular industry’s applications. VADs also maintain product inventories and provide technical advice.