System Integration & Control Systems Design

System integration in the digital age

February 2024 System Integration & Control Systems Design

To meet the challenges of an increasingly competitive marketplace, many manufacturers (end users) must focus on their core competencies, their secret sauce, and outsource the rest to experts. System integration is not a core competency for most end users, and many are outsourcing it. In fact, the trend in outsourcing system integration has been going on for decades, and it is likely to continue. Meanwhile, end users are elevating their internal engineering departments to play a new key role as an orchestrator of a wide and complex ecosystem of suppliers to deliver on the projects needed to support their companies’ strategies.

This takes place at a time when technology has gained a much more prominent and visible role in the success of the overall manufacturer. While digital transformation goes beyond technology, technology remains a key foundational element and true enabler.

Most end users’ projects have seen their solution scope expanded, going beyond the integration of traditional systems and reaching into functions that may have been too hard or expensive to integrate in the past. Many aspects of technology have become easier and more intuitive, in particular around the user experience. Integration, overall, has become more difficult. In addition to an expanded solution scope, system integration faces the challenges associated with brownfield installations with a patchwork of legacy systems.

Specifically these are:

• Many of these legacy systems were not designed to provide the streams of data at the required speeds.

• The proprietary nature of most legacy systems complicates integration. To make matters worse, many manufacturers have ended up with myriad systems from various generations and vendors, often the result of purchases over time. These include machines delivered with their control system, the ability of plants to dictate their preferred suppliers without corporate guidelines to follow, and the diversity brought by mergers and acquisitions.

System integration as a core competency

It’s no surprise that system integration is the core business of system integrators (SIs). They can offer their clients (end users) several advantages:

• Continuous investment into their technical resources. This includes the need to stay current on industry standards for safety and environmental issues. With the speed of technological development and the scarcity of competent resources, this is not a small challenge.

• Development of experience through cross-pollination brought about by ongoing exposure to a wide range of projects across various verticals. This is not easy for end users with only in-house resources as their ‘playground’, as they are limited to what is currently in their own plants.

• Methodological approach to system integration including project definition, project execution and change-order management and documentation.

• Flexibility in projects by following real project demand cycles.

• Ability to identify and mitigate risks.

• Experience to advise and guide end users in the complex digital transformation environment to become strategic partners in decision making.

The impact of digital transformation on SIs

Digital transformation will also transform the system integration business. The value added by SIs is migrating from one of technology deployment to one of deep domain expertise (industry vertical and application within a vertical). This migrates the ‘generalist’ to a ‘specialist’ SI.

The scope of their solutions keeps expanding and no single company, no matter its size, can deliver all that is required. Like IT workers, SIs need to master the skills associated with alliance/partnership management. Increasingly, they will be asked to participate or lead an alliance required to meet their end user clients’ full solution requirements.

The key role of SIs

At a very high level, it is important to recognise the key role played by SIs in the success of end user projects and underlying initiatives. The role of the SI is one of strategic importance, and the development of a long-term partnership needs to be the goal for the end user and the SI. Time invested upfront will help make the right selection. Projects where SIs are involved get funding because they represent an expected positive economic return. Delays in the start of production, and/or cost overruns impact the bottom line. This means their role is very critical.

At a high level, end users need to ask themselves:

• Can I envision a strategic, long-term relationship with this SI?

• Can we partner for mutual, long-term success? This requires an upfront, direct and honest relationship. It is very important to specify the scope of work and rules of engagement at the start and throughout the project. It is also key to have a solid relationship to handle the possible surprises when they occur.

• Does the SI have the required domain expertise (industry vertical or potential application within the vertical)? Is it open to develop the areas not mastered today? Is the SI committed to this industry vertical?

• Will this SI’s experts be able to deliver the assigned projects on their own or as part of an alliance? Do they have the technical proficiency, and can they build it out if needed? Can they lead a group of companies? Can they be a team player with my team and with the external companies?

• Does the SI have the right quality system and a continuous improvement mindset in place to ensure its viability in the long run? Is it CSIA or ISO-9001 certified? Can it be a partner in my digital transformation journey?

• Do we have the right fit and chemistry?

Practical steps to SI selection

Selecting an SI is more than a technical capabilities decision. Diligent preparation increases the odds of a successful project. If you are an end user, the following are practical steps to follow during the integrator selection process.

1. Define the project:

• What are the objectives, scope, resources, schedule and budget?

• What is the motivation behind this project?

• What are the project objectives?

• What do you want this project to look like when it’s finished?

• What are the risks of the project? Are you prepared to manage those risks?

• What is your communication plan?

2. Establish the criteria:

• Does the SI have experience in your industry?

• Does the SI have dedicated engineers with knowledge on the latest technologies, trends and issues?

• Can the SI show proof of project management competencies?

• Is the SI financially stable?

• Does the SI provide post-delivery services and support?

3. Identify the candidates:

• Does the SI have the technical sophistication level to handle the project?

Original content by Control Engineering.

For more information contact CFE Media + Technology,

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