2021 - 2022

Defining the Automation Systems Integration Industry

Vance VanDoren – 12/15/1994
Systems integration is fast becoming a major element of most industrial automation and control projects. Vendors, users, and automation systems integrators alike seem to share that view, yet the exact meaning of the expression "systems integrator" remains ill defined. To some, any collection of intelligent devices that can talk to each other constitutes an integrated system, and the engineers that install them qualify as systems integrators. To others, a truly integrated system must also include factory floor equipment, process controls, automated manufacturing machinery, computers, operators, managers, and the media by which they all communicate. There are control systems integrators, computer systems integrators, information systems integrators, manufacturing systems integrators, robotic systems integrators and more -- each specializing in their own form of "integrated" automation system.

Time, talents, and technology
There is, however, a common feature uniting all of these seemingly disparate disciplines. They all involve engineering companies that provide their time, talents, and technology to automate some sort of industrial operation. Those that do so on behalf of clients outside of their own company are the subject of CONTROL ENGINEERING's Automation Register starting on page XXX. VDI Research (West Lafayette, IN) has surveyed the 621 companies listed in the 1995 edition of the Automation Register to determine what other characteristics automation systems integrators may share.

The results of the survey indicate that the "average" automation systems integrator was founded some time after 1975, earns less than $5 million annually, and serves most of the United States with a slight emphasis on the OH-IN-IL-MI-WI area. See Figures 1 and 2. Systems integrators typically work on process, batch, and supervisory control projects either as independent contract engineering firms or as Allen-Bradley authorized systems integrators. Their tool of choice is the programmable logic controller (PLC), especially models by Allen-Bradley, GE Fanuc Automation, AEG Modicon, and Square D. After PLC installations, automation systems integrators are most adept at designing and implementing man-machine interface systems (MMIs) incorporating software from Intellution and Wonderware. See Figure 3.

The most common form of systems integration work reported by survey respondents involved interfacing PLCs to MMIs and field measurement devices. Ironically, these integrated systems were 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. 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 systems integrators surveyed.

Contract work
This result may reflect the increasing popularity of PLCs in the process industries now that PLCs are being equipped with continuous control capabilities. On the other hand, it may simply indicate that PC based automation projects are more readily contracted out to systems integrators. DCS systems are often implemented for the end user by the vendor's own in-house application engineering group, whereas PLCs can be purchased and installed by an independent systems integrator with or without the vendor's involvement. In the case of PLC vendor Allen-Bradley, for example, more than two thirds of the systems integrators surveyed indicated some experience with A/B's products yet only half of these indicated a corporate affiliation with A/B. Overall, independent systems integrators in the survey outnumbered the vendors' in-house engineering groups 15 to 1.

Perhaps systems integrators are better defined by the jobs that they can get rather than the specific details of the work that they do. This possibility is further supported by the close relationships that many systems integrators have with software suppliers like Intellution, Microsoft, and Wonderware. Contract programming has long been a staple of the contract engineering trade because computer programs are often the most convenient portion of an engineering project to assign to a third party. A computer program is relatively easy for the end user to specify apart from the rest of the project, and it is cheap for the outside engineers to produce. Systems integrators in the industrial automation industry seem to be following this trend. More than half of those surveyed cited PC software vendor Microsoft as a brand with which they have some experience, and more than a third of them cited a formal affiliation with one or more of the leading suppliers of software designed specifically for industrial automation and control applications.

Large and small companies alike
One characteristic that does not seem to help with the definition of "systems integrator" is company size. Although more than half of the respondents reported less than $5 million in annual revenues, the remaining annual revenue figures span the financial spectrum from $5 million to well over $50 million. Size did tend to determine the scope of the services that a single systems integrator could provide. The larger respondents cited more areas served, industries served, engineering specialties, and product experience than the smaller companies in the survey. The smaller companies tended to focus more of their energies on a narrower range of industries and engineering specialties - industrial automation, continuous and batch processing, PLCs, and systems engineering in particular.

The smaller respondents also cited fewer corporate affiliations. Companies reporting annual incomes greater than $5 million averaged more than five affiliations each, whereas those reporting annual incomes below $5 million averaged less than three. The percentage of smaller systems integrators with no corporate affiliations at all almost doubled the percentage of larger systems integrators in the unaffiliated category. This would seem to indicate that the smaller systems integrators prefer projects to which they can bring a product-independent point of view. For them, open systems and compatible products from multiple vendors are critical. Larger systems integrators, on the other hand, can afford to work with the more complex, proprietary systems that require the vendor's involvement.

Automation systems integrators are engineering companies that provide their services to clients in the industrial automation and control industry. That much is clear. Beyond that, however, the expression "systems integrator" defies a more precise definition. Systems integrators serve a wide variety of automated industries and engage in an even wider variety of engineering disciplines. There are one-man consulting firms and multi-billion dollar corporations that provide systems integration services of one kind or another. Automation systems integrators can be found working almost anywhere in the country on any kind of project that is amenable to third party involvement.

The selection process
The systems integrators listed in the Automation Register and those surveyed for this article were selected to represent a broad cross-section of the engineering services available in the industrial automation industry. Prospective participants completed qualifications questionnaires enumerating their engineering specialties, product experience, and corporate affiliations as well as the industries and areas that they serve. Qualified responses were selected from the questionnaires that described companies capable of designing and implementing some sort of industrial automation system.

Qualified respondents were then given the opportunity to submit more detailed information for a listing in the Automation Register. Each received a PC disk containing an interactive questionnaire program, complete with preliminary responses based on the company's original submission. A total of 239 qualified respondents returned their electronic applications this year. Those that elected to fund their listings have been included in the FEATURED section of the Automation Register starting on page XXX. All responses were incorporated into the survey's statistics.

The Automation Register's directory section starting on page XXX includes contact information for all qualified respondents that have submitted either electronic applications or qualifications questionnaires within the past three years. These companies will automatically receive new applications next year.

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