2021 - 2022

Automation System Integrators Stay the Course

Vance VanDoren – 12/15/1996
According to a survey published in CONTROL ENGINEERING's 1995 Automation Register (CONTROL ENGINEERING, mid-December 1994), the "average" automation system integrator in the early 90's was less than 20 years old, earned less than $5 million annually, and served most of the United States with a slight emphasis on the OH-IN-IL-MI-WI geographical area. System integrators of that period typically worked on process, batch, and supervisory control projects either as independent contract engineering firms or as authorized system integrators for control equipment manufacturers such as Allen-Bradley (Mayfield Heights, OH).

Their tool of choice was the programmable logic controller (PLC), especially models by Allen-Bradley, Siemens Energy and Automation (Alpharetta, GA), and GE Fanuc Automation (Charlottesville, VA). The Modicon and Square D brands from Schneider Automation (North Andover, MA) were also quite popular. After PLC installations, automation system integrators were most adept at designing and implementing human-machine interface systems (HMIs) incorporating software from Intellution (Norwood, MA) and Wonderware (Irvine, CA).

Little has changed
That profile of a typical system integrator in the industrial automation industry remains fairly accurate today. A follow-up survey of the 800+ companies listed in the last two editions of the Automation Register shows that automation system integrators in the mid-90's have gotten older, but have not changed their focus much.

The most common form of system integration work reported by respondents to both surveys involved interfacing PLCs to HMIs and field measurement devices. Ironically, both surveys also showed that these integrated PLC/HMI systems have been most commonly applied to continuous process control projects where distributed control systems (DCSs) have traditionally been the computing platform of choice. Nonetheless, the PLC was cited as an engineering specialty half again as often as the DCS in both surveys.

Furthermore, the discrete manufacturing industries where PLCs have been traditionally applied were not among the most frequently served industries. Only material handling made it in to the top five industries served by the system integrators surveyed in 1994. Today, material handling is tied with another process industry -- pharmaceuticals -- as the fifth most commonly served industry. The top four remain food and beverage, industrial automation and control, continuous and batch processing, and petrochemicals. (See bar charts.)

PLCs remain popular
These results reflect the continuing growth of the PLC market, especially in the process industries where PLCs are being equipped with continuous control capabilities. PLC-based automation projects are particularly popular with system integrators since PLCs are available off-the-shelf with a wide variety of standard features. DCS systems, on the other hand, are often implemented for the end user by the vendor's own in-house application engineering group using proprietary equipment.

As a control computing platform, personal computers (PCs) have yet to gain such widespread acceptance among system integrators. System integrators still relegate PCs to data acquisition and HMI chores. Of all the corporate affiliations reported by respondents to both surveys, none of the PC-based control vendors made it in to the top 20. On the other hand, three vendors of PC-based HMI and PLC programming software -- Intellution, Wonderware, and Rockwell Software -- made it in to the top 5 this year.

More variety
Although the nature of the services offered by automation system integrators has not changed much since the 1994 survey, the demographics of the industry have shifted slightly. More than 10% of the respondents to this year's survey now report revenues in the over $50 million range. Of these larger companies, the most notable new entrants into the system integration market include Honeywell Industrial Automation and Control (Phoenix, AZ) and USDATA (Richardson, TX). Mergers have also accounted for some of the increased revenue figures. Since August of 1995, TOPRO Systems Integration (Denver, CO) has acquired Advanced Control Technology (Albany, OR), Vision Engineering (Cypress, CA), and MDCS (Atlanta, GA) to form one of the largest automation engineering firms in the country.

System integrators have also been developing more of an international clientele in recent years. This year's survey showed that among geographical areas served, "international" was cited more often than "United States". The biggest increase in international sales of system integration services has been in Canada where half of the provinces are now home to one or more system integration or automation engineering firms.

Continued growth expected
The importance of system integration continues to grow as industrial automation and control systems become more and more complex. This trend is likely to continue so long as end users need help with their automation projects, and systems integrators continue to provide their time, talents, and technology for such purposes.

© 2004 Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.

© 2001-2020 VanDoren Industries, Inc. For additional assistance, email editor@integrator.guide, or call (765) 296-7600 to talk to a live editor.