True cost of systems integration: Consider lifecycle costs, benefits

Systems integration may be considered as one of the last items in the project, treated as a commodity, like some equipment. True cost of systems integration can be more complicated. Understand and measure these costs to keep the budget balanced over time. See supporting Control Engineering system integration research.

10/18/2013


The true cost of systems integration can be a lot more complicated than buying system components. Learn more about how to understand and measure these costs to balance your budget over the long haul. Courtesy: TriCoreWhen installing a new line or process, many people consider systems integration as one of the last items in the project. The cost is often viewed simply as the purchase price of the system, and is often treated as a commodity just like any run-of-the-mill piece of equipment. Buyers should beware, as the true cost of systems integration can be a lot more complicated than that. Learn more about how to understand and measure these costs, and the budget will stay in balance over the long haul.

Good beginning, good ending

The up-front costs of a system integration project include the cost of materials, software licenses, travel, installation, and various sorts of technical labor. There are a wide variety of factors that can significantly influence these costs for any given production line or process.

Some systems provide very tight control of the processing equipment or production line, while others have more variability. Certain ones are rigid in their actions and only allow a pre-defined set of operations, whereas others allow much more flexibility. Some have massive redundancies and others have multiple points of failure. Systems can be very intuitive to operate or require substantial training. Some are extremely safe to run; with little risk to people, high degrees of product integrity, and layers of protection for processing equipment. Others carry significant risks if not operated as intended.

Costs and considerations for control system design and implementation should be an integral part of all project planning.

Certain features, such as safety, product integrity, and equipment protection, tend to be universally desired. Others, like flexibility or ease of operations, can be a matter of budget, preference, process, or business requirements. All of these have an influence on both the initial up-front costs and the total true cost of the system over time. It is important to sort out these factors up front. 

For example, in general the tighter you wish to control a process, the more you need to measure it. The more you measure it, the higher your costs in the form of instrumentation, sensors, I/O modules, electrical engineering, programming, installation, and maintenance. There is always a balance point between the cost of waste due to variance in a process and the total cost required to control the process within a certain limit. Higher value raw materials and finished products require tighter control. Paying attention to this balance point up front can yield great dividends in the long run. There is a fiscal context to both under-controlling and over-monitoring a process or production line.

Various factors influence up-front costs, as well as the carrying costs over time.

Lifecycle costs: Prosperity over time

Most systems are in operation for years. It is important to consider what the operational requirements will be over time. One item to consider is the flexibility of operations. It is relatively straightforward to design and install a system with a limited number of pre-programmed operations. It is usually more complicated and expensive to design, test, and install a system with a large number of flexible operations.

Many manufacturers have an increasing number of products SKUs (stock-keeping units) and need a lot of agility built into control systems. For such manufacturing operations, it will likely make sense to invest up front in a system that will accommodate this requirement over time. Putting such flexibility into the hands of operations staff usually will be a lot less expensive than repeated redesigns by technical staff over the lifecycle of the system.

For many facilities downtime spells disaster. In some instances the loss associated with one hour of downtime can outweigh the entire up-front cost of the system. It is important to get a clear handle on the true costs of downtime for the line, facility, or connected supply chain. Redundancy can be designed into all systems on many levels including servers, controllers, workstations, and more. This will add to up-front costs, but it can be a smart trade-off if the downtime tolerance is low.

Staffing: Turnover, ergonomics

Another item to consider is the staff turnover rate for those individuals in operations and maintenance. Just like so many smart devices on the market today, easy intuitive control system operations generally require a bunch of smarts under the hood. There is a wide array of operator interface and visualization products on the market, and an almost infinite way to configure them. If your staff turnover rate is high and your process is complex, it might make economic sense to spend a bit more up front with higher end visualization products and configurations to make staff training easier.

Don’t forget the ergonomics of how people interact with your system as they perform their work. The number and location of your operator workstations should take all of this into account. System workstations need to be relatively close to where the work is performed and in sufficient quantity so that multiple operators are not tripping over each other trying to access the system. A little more infrastructure of this sort can save a lot of labor costs over the life of your system.


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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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