Choosing a systems integrator to advance automation
A systems integrator should listen, advise and educate a plant's team on how tech will reduce manufacturing costs and improve product quality
The use and development of industrial robotics and automation technology has accelerated in recent years, and that growth remains at full speed ahead. According to a recent ABI Research report, more than a half million mobile robots will be shipped to warehouses globally by 2030. That’s a Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of nearly 40% in the next decade — and that’s just for distribution warehouses, not to mention manufacturing and processing facilities.
Many large food and beverage manufacturers have in-house engineering teams that provide automation and system integration services to their various facilities. However, most small- and medium-sized processors don’t have that capability, meaning they must often partner with an outside systems integrator (SI) to advance their automation strategy and bring new systems online.
With so many available options in the vast field of automation and robotics, selecting an SI can seem like a daunting endeavor — but it doesn’t have to be.
First, solidify your plant personnel and hire early
The process of searching for a systems integrator begins with some introspection and internal preparation. The food or beverage manufacturer should assess its current IT and controls personnel and hire sufficient staff at the right time to ensure seamless knowledge transfer and training. Many times, a company won’t hire these teams until the last minute. That leaves those employees adjusting to a new environment and company culture, while also learning the operations of a specific facility and system, all at the same time — and quickly.
An alternate option is for manufacturers to hire these teams earlier so they can be an integral part of the implementation process. This provides the new team members more time to learn the new systems and how they integrate into existing systems before they fully take over. Today’s labor market can make this especially tricky, which is more reason to begin the hiring process early.
Questions to ask potential systems integrator candidates
As you’re researching and vetting SI providers, there are several due diligence questions you should ask to help narrow your decision:
- Can they provide a list of executed projects and/or clients?
- Can they provide examples of challenges or lessons learned from previous projects?
- Do they have adequate resources to support the project?
- Do they understand the corporate and plant goals?
- Do they have experience working with guaranteed maximum prices (GMPs)?
- How do they manage scope changes?
- What is their project implementation methodology?
- How do they approach migrating a complex system with minimal downtime?
- Do they offer startup support? To what extent?
- How is system knowledge transferred to plant personnel? (As-built documentation? Training? Do they involve technicians and key plant personnel during startup?)
- Is their team available to provide 24/7/365 support?
- How do they follow up with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) on standards?
- Have they implemented any sustainability projects? Can they share best practices?
- Have they previously designed systems that comply with LEED, Green Globes or other formalized sustainable design guidelines?
Another question worth asking: Do they have a consistent team that will help you navigate the entire process? If your SI is introducing a different resource staff member each week, that can lead to time wasted due to retraining and it can open the door to errors of miscommunication.
Select an SI that understands your status quo and offers specific, tailored solutions
A systems integrator should be integrating new systems into current operations and not implementing sweeping changes with no regard for the company’s process, plant and people. Automation is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
A good SI should take the time to understand what has and has not been working in order to develop a solution tailored to your specific needs. They should conduct a site assessment and spend time at the plant both to understand its challenges and to build a relationship with plant personnel. If those employees have grown accustomed to a particular system over a length of time, successfully introducing new technology is going to require buy-in.
The SI team should also align their specifications and recommendations with the facility’s standards. At the end of the day, plant personnel need to know how to troubleshoot and maintain the instrumentation. The SI should research and understand what changes a particular plant is comfortable with, what equipment they are comfortable upgrading, what equipment must be upgraded and how to ensure compatibility with the plant’s other systems and information technology infrastructure.
If there is a need to modify a plant’s existing standards to accommodate new technologies or automation strategies, the SI should be prepared to inform stakeholders as to why standards need to change, facilitate approval and educate all affected personnel on the new standards.
Preparing to meet with a systems integrator
There are a few things that manufacturers should do in advance before they sit down with a systems integrator to move a project forward:
- Involve key facility personnel from day one, especially the controls team, IT department and maintenance personnel. If they work in the plant, you should listen to their feedback.
- Include the plant leadership team in order to fully understand current operational challenges and opportunities.
- Involve corporate leadership to better understand corporate goals and initiatives.
- If you have other facilities, take note of existing challenges and pain points so that you can share that information with your system integrator.
Plant owners should inform their SI who the key members of the project are from the plant side so they can coordinate and work effectively with them. The plant should also identify a main point of contact who will champion the facility’s automation efforts. The SI should coordinate with this person and provide weekly status reports to key stakeholders.
Ultimately, a good SI should operate as a seamless extension of the manufacturer’s engineering team by listening, advising and educating them on how certain technology will reduce manufacturing costs and improve product quality. Rather than focusing on their work with tunnel vision, the SI should be part of the overall team and be willing to bring ideas to the table.
Finally, the scope should remain flexible as the project inevitably changes. For an efficient and successful implementation, the SI must be nimble and meet their client’s needs wherever they are. As technology evolves, they should too.