True cost of systems integration: Consider lifecycle costs, benefits


Staffing: Be safe, not sorry

The safe operation of your system should be the top design consideration. A system needs to protect people above all else, but also be concerned with product integrity and protection of processing equipment. The risk of loss in any of these areas can far exceed the total up-front cost of the system.

Those involved with system integration know that system integrators should be involved earlier in the project lifecycle, according to recent research from Control Engineering. Courtesy: Control Engineering System Integration research report, 2013

The chief risk to people comes in areas that are semi-automated, mixing automated equipment operations with manual human operations. Sensors and programming are needed in the right mix to prevent unsafe operations from starting, and to stop operations when an unsafe condition is sensed. Protecting product and equipment should be approached in a similar manner. Adequate permissives must be programmed to insure safe setups; operations at cross purpose must be interlocked; and critical faults must be programmed to immediately stop all unsafe operations.

As part of the design process, a functional description detailing all of these items is invaluable. Distribute the functional description document to all relevant stakeholders for input. This is a great way to ensure that all bases are covered. Prior to installing any system, you may need regression testing to ensure all permutations of operations are performing properly. This all takes time and money, but it can be a small cost compared to potential losses in any of these areas.

A final word on safety: On workstations, it is all too easy to configure all sorts of measurement values as alarms. This can be self-defeating, as it creates “noise” that makes it difficult to separate real problems from simple process status. Human response to alarm conditions is a necessary element for safe operations. Only configure alarms that are actionable to better manage safe operations and mitigate your risk of loss in this regard.

Preventive, predictive analytics

The final consideration on the true cost of system integration is the potential savings it can generate. A smartly designed system can provide both operational and maintenance savings over the life of the system. Use of historian products and manufacturing analytics afford deep insight into the behavior of a processing system or production line. These powerful tools can deliver significant return on investment over the life of a system.

Should something unexpected happen in a process, systems with complete historian capabilities can be invaluable in diagnosing what happened. This could include recording all device actuations, operator actions, and sensor measurements from moment to moment. The plummeting cost of information storage makes such solutions much more financially viable than they were just a few years ago. When compared to the costs of a product recall, the cost of this extra visibility can be insignificant.

Measuring and trending device actuation cycle times or run times can be a great aid in preventive maintenance for related devices. It is almost always cheaper to properly maintain a device based on its usage than operate it until it fails, or waste time and money on premature maintenance. Recording and analyzing actual run and cycle times can allow preventive maintenance to be performed in the most efficient, effective manner.

Finally, the ability to monitor operations over time can yield data that can turn into actionable information to help improve the operating efficiency of the processing equipment or production line. These analytics include operational equipment effectiveness (OEE) analysis, downtime analysis, statistical process control (SPC), linear regression performance analysis, and more. Such analytics can unleash hidden capacity in the processing system, without the need to capitalize new equipment.

Integrated planning

Costs and considerations for control system design and implementation should be an integral part of all project planning, not an afterthought at the end. The long-term costs and benefits are often much more complicated than they appear on the surface. Proper design practices should include considerations not just for the immediate project, but for the anticipated behavior and value the system can provide over time. Follow the guidelines outlined here to enable your system to provide the most value to manufacturing operations and to keep long-term costs in check.

- David McCarthy is president and CEO of TriCore Inc. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering, Plant Engineering, and Consulting-Specifying Engineer,

Key concepts

  • System integration shouldn’t be considered a commodity.
  • Effective system integration lowers costs and increases value over the project lifecycle.
  • It is better to involve a system integration expert earlier in project design, rather than later.


See additional links to Control Engineering System Integration research and additional TriCore articles with project management advice at the bottom of this file. Use the comment area to add your advice.

Consider this

At what point are you involving experts with eyes on project lifecycle costs and benefits?

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MICHAEL , IL, United States, 10/25/13 09:24 AM:

Lots of good points. Should be required reading for companies considering system integrators for the 1st time.
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