Four steps to system integrator success

A structured approach yields maximum value when engaging an integration partner.

By Nobuyuki Tamaki, Yokogawa Electric Corporation February 7, 2018

Employing a system integrator or the system integration division of an automation supplier can help manufacturers improve their operational structure. To ensure a better chance at success, the integration needs to start with a methodology for continuous value creation to minimize expenditures and risk, and to speed implementation.

There are four steps to this process:

Step 1: Identify

You need to understand the challenges facing your plant, facility, or company to define potential areas for improvement through collaboration and co-innovation with a system integrator partner. Examples of common issues include:

  • Unable to operate as planned due to lack of experienced operators and staff

  • Differences between production planning and actual performance

  • Inconsistency in final product quality, even when using the same materials and workflow

  • Customer complaints regarding quality, even when the products passed all criteria for delivery

  • Need to maximize production while minimizing energy use.

Although your personnel usually can identify some of the challenges faced internally, a complete analysis requires looking at competitors. For example, if industry best practices indicate 98% uptime, then your company must rise to the challenge if you don’t currently meet this benchmark.

A system integrator partner can assist in this area if they have the required domain knowledge and ample industry experience. Engaging an integrator expert in power generation to identify the challenges faced by a refinery normally will not result in success.

Instead, it’s better to look for an integrator with extensive expertise in your processes and plants, and to require the integrator to demonstrate where they have succeeded while working in situations similar to your own.

References need to be provided and verified, preferably with a phone call or a plant visit.

Step 2: Create and implement

Domain knowledge on the part of a system integrator partner again is critical because they must understand your plant and its processes to design and deploy solutions.

Here are some solutions often applied to solve process plant problems:

  • Monitor production performance (planning vs. estimate vs. actual) remotely through vendor consultants to provide periodic reviews and recommendations for corrective action

  • Support recommendations with consultation during implementation

  • Give advice when modifying production planning caused by external factors such as general economic conditions, demand, and performance of the production units

  • Integrate multiple process values influencing product quality into one value to simplify monitoring by threshold management

  • Identify differences in batch patterns by comparing data for each batch, extracting feature value, and creating a management index to detect different patterns

  • Use advanced process control to optimize production

  • Provide a clear view of product quality in real time by implementing a soft sensor created by using inferred data.

If the system integrator has solved similar problems elsewhere, this experience and expertise can be transferred to address your company’s issues. This shortens the learning curve, and prevents your company from making the same mistakes made by others when addressing these types of issues.

Step 3: Operate

With the integration in place, the next step is to operate the plant according to plan. Since no amount of expertise in Step 2 will produce a perfect solution, expect some issues to crop up in the first few months of operation.

Most plants don’t produce the same product at the same rate at all times because production schedules change in response to market demands. As production changes, issues can arise which were not evident in creation. Other required changes to production systems are common to deal with issues such as changing feedstocks and varying energy prices.

To deal with any changes, keep the system integrator partner engaged for a few months after initial implementation to assure optimal operation, and to train your company’s employees so they can execute the next step effectively.

Step 4: Sustain and improve

This step primarily is carried out by internal personnel, but the system integrator partner should remain available to provide assistance and maintain the value generation cycle.

The training program implemented as part of Step 3 is critical to sustaining success and making ongoing improvements. Plant personnel must be very familiar with the recently completed project so they can implement Step 4 correctly. Additionally, having an outside resource close at hand in the form of the system integrator used in Steps 1-3 is critical.

No matter how system integration services are labeled by suppliers, the most important factors for success of your project are always domain knowledge and industry experience. The more your system integrator knows about your processes and plants, the better the solution.

Nobuyuki Tamaki is the general manager for the marketing and planning department of the business administration division for the premium solutions & service business headquarters of Yokogawa Electric Corporation.