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Automation System Integrators Broaden Their Horizons

Vance VanDoren -- 5/1/2003
In a recent open-ended survey, system integrators listed in the Control Engineering Automation Integrator Guide (www.controleng.com/integrators) were asked, "What functionality have your clients been asking to get from their automation systems that they didn't typically ask for five years ago?" The overwhelming majority of respondents cited information gathering as the emerging trend in automation system requirements.

"Typical installations that begin predominantly as simple control and monitoring often evolve into comprehensive data mining systems, performing analysis on trends, costs, tolerances, etcetera," says Tony Kaczmarek, president of Kors Engineering (Waterford, MI). "Clients are also asking for more integration with other systems, such as corporate ERP [Enterprise Resource Planning] systems or MES [Manufacturing Execution Systems]," adds David Krahling, director of business development at Interstates Control Systems (Sioux Center, IA).

The Control System Integrators Association (CSIA, Exton, PA) has even changed its name to reflect this trend. CSIA Chairman James M. Cummings notes a "shift from simple machine control and plant floor process control to true enterprise integration. As it becomes increasingly important to tie plant-floor systems to business systems of the enterprise, the common thread is the need for reliable, responsive, and relevant information."

He adds, "Control system integrators are used not only as the vehicle to perform the integration, but also as the intermediary and translator between the engineering and information technology functions within the enterprise; hence the organization's new name.

He adds, "Control system integrators are used not only as the vehicle to perform the integration, but also as the intermediary and translator between the engineering and information technology functions within the enterprise." Hence the organization's new name—the Control and Information System Integrators Association.

Making it happen
All these new requirements for additional data at the supervisory and management levels of a client's enterprise have fostered a demand for more sophisticated networking and communications services.

"I have clients paying particular attention to the communication interface either between equipment or to the supervisory system or to the higher level systems, such as ERP and MES. Clients see the present value in terms of the usefulness of information exchanged and in terms of the future needs of sending to or extracting information from their equipment, all without buying new hardware or running more wire," notes Rajko Kostur, a control system engineer at Variant Corp. (Portland, OR).

Selected Engineering Specialities Cited by Automation System Integrators
Integrators listed in the Control Engineering Automation Integrator Guide report annually on the engineering fields in which they specialize. In 2002, a wide majority cited traditional expertise, such as process control and programmable controllers. Far fewer reported IT-related fields, such as information systems and MES.

Several survey respondents commented on the technology that's facilitating the achievement of these objectives. Nels Tyring, marketing chairman of the Automation Alliance Group (West Chester, PA), reports that his group has been doing a lot more networking, especially with Ethernet.

John Malyszka, a sales engineer with Panatrol Corp., says, "Data collection, manipulation and accessibility, including the Internet to varying degrees, continues to be the single most significant addition to our automation control projects."

Meet the need
So what's becoming of all this information that system integrators are being asked to provide?

Diane B. Harris, president of Harris Automation Services (Houston, TX), has been using off-the-shelf software packages to send real-time and historical process variables to her client's PC networks for automated daily reports. "Connections to the PC network through routers and Ethernet have also allowed remote access to networks for engineering and report generation," she adds.

At a higher level, Atkins Systems (Walled Lake, MI) has been using Web technology to provide real-time process, production, and operation information and the ability to control the process remotely. "It's one thing to monitor but, it's another to have the ability to control," says Randal T. Paquette, Atkins' director of business development for its automotive sector.

Jason Grahek, a project engineer at Industrial Automation Engineering (Blaine, MN), offers a similar observation. "Customers are asking us to tie the control systems into their enterprise systems to make key real-time decisions based on what is happening in their plant. Also, as the flow of information goes in and out of enterprise systems, they are looking for a single point of order entry that's carried throughout their systems and into the production schedules of the control system."

Stick with the fundamentals
However, Mr. Grahek goes on to note that "few are actually at the point of a 'single point of entry,' but it is the mid-range goal that is being worked towards."

Tony Banasiak, the controls and automation group leader at Patrick Engineering (Lisle, IL), agrees that there's more to do. "We've seen a tremendous migration from isolated plant floor and office network systems to a desire to connect the plant floor to the office network. However, the push for the full-scale integration to ERP systems has not really materialized."

A review of the Automation Integrator Guide 's index of engineering specialties substantiates Mr. Banasiak's point. Automation system integrators as a whole have not yet embraced MES and information technology as enthusiastically as have early adopters. As the chart shows, most still focus on such traditional automation technology as programmable controllers, systems integration, and process control.

Follow the rules
Information also figures into the survey's second most popular answer-regulatory compliance. Several respondents reported an increased interest by the medical and pharmaceutical industries in FDA 21 CFR Part 11 compliant documentation.

This regulation, established in 1997 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA, Rockville, MD) and currently undergoing agency reviews, establishes the criteria for creating, approving, copying, and retaining information generated using electronic systems. The intent of the regulation is to ensure electronic information maintains the same level of trustworthiness, reliability, and general equivalence to traditional paper records with handwritten signatures.

End-users required to meet the Part 11 regulation are asking their system integrators to help make it happen.

Acquire new skills
All these new services that clients are asking their system integrators to provide require an expansion of the integrators' skill set. Mr. Kostur and Mr. Tyring cite the need for additional networking skills, especially the ability to understand the values of each network type and where each network has its place.

Mr. Banasiak agrees, "To handle network connectivity and database management, we have had to add information technology skill sets to meet those needs." Ms. Harris adds that, "UNIX and NT security implementation and experience with Level 3 historian packages are becoming more important for the systems she works on."

However, not all of the skills that a system integrator needs to succeed in the Information Age are new. Computer programming, for example, has long been a staple of the system integrator's trade. Mr. Krahling of Interstates Control Systems notes, "ICS has had a full line of electrical and control system engineering services available as part of our automation division for some time, so we haven't really added engineering expertise. We have added some programming skills to accommodate these client needs."

On the other hand, IAE's Mr. Grahek reports, "IAE has been steadily adding engineers and programmers with information systems backgrounds as we have been doing a large percentage of our jobs at the enterprise level for our clients."

Integrators may not agree on exactly what skills they need, but they all agree that their needs are whatever their clients need.

Comments? E-mail Vance VanDoren at controleng@msn.com.

For more information
For more integrators, go to www.controleng.com/integrators :
Atkins Systems
Automation Alliance
Control and Information System Integrators Association
Harris Automation Services
Industrial Automation Engineering
Interstates Control Systems
Kors Engineering
Patrick Engineering
Variant Corp.

Top Five Survey Responses
Features and functions that clients are beginning to ask their automation system integrators to provide.
  • Information systems;
  • Validation and regulatory compliance;
  • Safety and security;
  • Upgrades to non-proprietary technology; and
  • Machine diagnostics.

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