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Control System Integrator Partnerships Help End Users Automate

Vance VanDoren – 12/15/1997
In the early days of industrial automation, the equipment available for automating a process was relatively simple. Plant engineers could build their own automation systems with a few basic devices (valves, meters, controllers, and the like) purchased directly from a handful of equipment vendors or through their local distributors.

In recent years, however, automation systems have become more sophisticated as automation problems have become more complex. There are now hundreds of vendors selling thousands of products from simple software to high tech hardware.

At the same time, the ranks of the plant engineer have dwindled. Competition and downsizing pressures have forced plant managers to produce more goods with fewer people. Many producers have eliminated their in-house engineering staffs entirely.

System integrators to the rescue
System integrators have taken up much of the slack. With their specialized knowledge of industrial processes and automation products, system integrators are a valuable resource to end users that lack the time or talent to implement their own automation systems.

System integrators are also a resource for automation vendors eager to provide the products needed for those automation systems. "They give us more feet in the street" says Bob Staples of Moore Products (Spring House, PA). Mr. Staples directs Moore's program of PReferred Integrators of Systems from Moore (PRISM), a network of independent engineering firms that can integrate Moore's automation products with the other components of a client's automation system.

Mr. Staples also notes that PRISM partnerships work both ways. "Not only do they bring us in to provide hardware for projects they've contracted themselves; we often bring them in to work on projects of our own, especially when our in-house engineering department needs extra manpower or specialized expertise." Either way, says Staples, the goal is the same -- whatever works best for the customer.

A variety of programs
At least 42 automation vendors have established partnership programs for system integrators (see chart). Some, like Moore's PRISM program, involve just a few dozen select integrators. Others include several hundred members. Among the largest are the programs sponsored by Allen-Bradley (Mayfield Heights, OH), Wonderware (Irvine, CA), Intellution (Norwood, MA), and National Instruments (Austin, TX).

That's not to say that the larger system integrator programs are open to just any company that wants to join. According to Jack Barber, developer relations manager at National Instruments, all 400+ members of National's Alliance program must meet specific qualification requirements. National's field sales representatives nominate new members based on their skills and customer references. After a year as associate members, nominees that have been successful in working with National's products to meet their customer's needs can apply for full membership.

These requirements are designed primarily to assure future customers that all of National's Alliance integrators have successful track records. "Hopefully, our customers will feel more comfortable working with someone who's run the gauntlet to make it to the full membership level", says Barber.

The customer's view
The process certainly worked well for Tuan Phan, section engineer for Closure Medical (Raleigh, NC), a manufacturer of medical tissue cohesive products. For his latest automation project, Mr. Phan first selected the products he wanted to install, then went about locating an integrator qualified for the job. Having settled on National Instruments' Bridgeview software, Phan consulted National's Alliance program directory for integrators with at least five years of experience in the area of data acquisition and control systems. He was also able to focus specifically on integrators that worked in his industry and in his area.

What Mr. Phan found was MicroCraft (Raleigh, NC), an Alliance partner experienced in Bridgeview programming. According to Phan, that experience paid off. "Our new automation system works great ... MicroCraft delivered more than we expected." Mr. Phan was also pleased with National's on-going participation in the project. Says Phan, "National Instruments really has a very sharp technical support group" that continued to support the project after MicroCraft took over principal responsibility for completing it.

Unfortunately, not all project teams comprised of the vendor, the system integrator, and the end user work so well together. One plant engineer for a southern textiles manufacturer noted that the integrator recommended by his local distributor turned out to be the vendor's partner in name only. "When something went wrong with the system, they'd just point their fingers at each other rather. More often than not, we'd have to fix the problem ourselves."

The integrator's view
MicroCraft's vice president Stan Craft agrees that some partnership programs are more effective than others. "Some programs just require you to fill out a form and sign your name. Others require rigorous qualifications based on on-site visits, references from customers, financial statements, etc. In one case, joining the program was harder than getting a loan from our bank."

Jay Jeffreys, a senior systems engineer at Industrial Systems Design (ISD in Johnson City, TN) also gives his vendors mixed reviews. "Many of these programs have been affected by internal political implications, especially friction between the vendors' own in-house engineering group and the system integrator partners." However, Jeffreys goes on to note that with some programs, ISD is not only an integral part of the project team, but part of the vendor's product development and definition cycle as well. "We not only find out what's happening early, we get to help with the development as well."

Ultimately, it is the end user's interests that determine how well the vendors work with their partners. As Jim Archer, Wonderware's systems integrator program manager puts it, "Our objective is to satisfy the end user, and we need satisfied integrators to do that."

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

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