Custom automation vs. commercial-off-the-shelf, or both?


Fear can lead to poor decisions

These fallacies can drive a customer to make poor business decisions based on the fear of “custom” alone and allows customers to be lured into the promises made by COTS products. COTS-based projects fail for two primary reasons. First, the customer either does not understand the COTS product limitations or is willing to accept these limitations to adhere to the “common everything” vision. Customers often see success on their initial, relatively small deployment, but find it challenging to extend the system to other functional areas or facilities that have different needs.

A system integrator should assess the organization’s needs and provide the best solution based on those requirements, not based on what products they sell.


Second, the customer does not adequately plan for the maintenance and support required for the COTS product. Again, this issue is not readily visible on the first deployment. However, as the system grows and customized portions of the COTS product require modification and configuration management, customers begin to see issues with version control and support.

Leverage COTS and custom

The most successful system integration projects use both COTS and custom approaches to best fit the customer’s immediate needs and future requirements. For successful system integration, customers and their consultants must:

  • Understand COTS and custom as viable and necessary options. Do not limit system integration projects to COTS without understanding the organization’s immediate and future needs. Be sure to recognize how any COTS deployment will be customized for these needs and the support requirements associated with all facets of the product. If the needs are unique, as most are, evaluate the merits of a custom solution.
  • Decide what should be common and, conversely, what should be customizable. Every system should have a set of features that everyone gets and a set of expectations that every deployment should adhere to. Define these up front based on business requirements. Then, decide what features can be different between functional areas and facilities. Allow the standard features to support “custom” features that are needed in different areas.
  • Find a technical advocate. When looking for a system integrator to assist, deploy, and program the solution, be sure to find a technical advocate and not a product vendor. A system integrator should assess the organization’s needs and provide the best solution based on those requirements, not based on what products they sell.

Corey A. Stefanczak is a senior system engineer at SAIC, responsible for the design, development, and integration of real-time information systems. Courtesy: SAICBy seeing “custom” as a viable option instead of a feared word, customers can make better system integration decisions. Understanding custom as a tool and necessary part of a project, COTS or otherwise, a customer can weigh the benefits of a COTS and custom solution, rather than restricting their view to a COTS or custom solution.

- Corey A. Stefanczak is senior system architect at Leidos Engineering. His primary focus is helping clients unify automation infrastructure and information systems within large, distributed environments. Stefanczak uses 16 years of integration experience to help clients succeed by finding the right balance between COTS components and custom development. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager CFE Media, Control Engineering, Plant Engineering, and Consulting-Specifying Engineer,


Key concepts

  • Customization may be dismissed out of hand, when it can be the best solution.
  • Just because it is commercial off the shelf (COTS) doesn’t mean it can be used without custom configuration.
  • Do not limit system integration projects to COTS without understanding the organization’s immediate and future needs. 

Consider this

  • If some customization is required to get 20% more output over the lifecycle of an automation system, wouldn’t that be worth the extra investment?

<< First < Previous 1 2 3 Next > Last >>

No comments
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2013 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
A cool solution: Collaboration, chemistry leads to foundry coat product development; See the 2015 Product of the Year Finalists
Raising the standard: What's new with NFPA 70E; A global view of manufacturing; Maintenance data; Fit bearings properly
Sister act: Building on their father's legacy, a new generation moves Bales Metal Surface Solutions forward; Meet the 2015 Engineering Leaders Under 40
Cyber security cost-efficient for industrial control systems; Extracting full value from operational data; Managing cyber security risks
Drilling for Big Data: Managing the flow of information; Big data drilldown series: Challenge and opportunity; OT to IT: Creating a circle of improvement; Industry loses best workers, again
Pipeline vulnerabilities? Securing hydrocarbon transit; Predictive analytics hit the mainstream; Dirty pipelines decrease flow, production—pig your line; Ensuring pipeline physical and cyber security
Upgrading secondary control systems; Keeping enclosures conditioned; Diagnostics increase equipment uptime; Mechatronics simplifies machine design
Designing positive-energy buildings; Ensuring power quality; Complying with NFPA 110; Minimizing arc flash hazards
Building high availability into industrial computers; Of key metrics and myth busting; The truth about five common VFD myths

Annual Salary Survey

After almost a decade of uncertainty, the confidence of plant floor managers is soaring. Even with a number of challenges and while implementing new technologies, there is a renewed sense of optimism among plant managers about their business and their future.

The respondents to the 2014 Plant Engineering Salary Survey come from throughout the U.S. and serve a variety of industries, but they are uniform in their optimism about manufacturing. This year’s survey found 79% consider manufacturing a secure career. That’s up from 75% in 2013 and significantly higher than the 63% figure when Plant Engineering first started asking that question a decade ago.

Read more: 2014 Salary Survey: Confidence rises amid the challenges

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.