System Integration

System integrators claim their role in the digital transformation

System integrators are taking on digital transformation as it becomes more realistic and attainable.
By Jose M. Rivera December 17, 2019
Jose M. Rivera has been CEO of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) since March 2015. Courtesy: CSIA

In the past years and through regular interaction with manufacturers (end users), automation equipment vendors, machine builders, system integrators (SIs) and associations in the automation space, I have witnessed an important evolution around the topic of digital transformation (IoT, IIoT, Industry 4.0, smart industry and so on). The concept has evolved from a heavily promoted futuristic vision based on technology (e.g., Big Data, artificial intelligence) to a more realistic and attainable one. While some wish for a checklist to claim “compliance,” many understand digital transformation is a journey.

Digital transformation

I learned of manufacturers feeling compelled to show interest and involvement in digital transformation by funding projects, only to be disappointed at their inability to scale them or getting the rest of their organizations to embrace them. High failure rates have been reported on many projects that were meant to be the departing points for actual company digital transformation initiatives.

With the passage of time, digital transformation has gained maturity. Hype has given way to implementation and experience sharing among manufacturers. The development of some overall frameworks has been welcomed. The Singapore Economic Development Board, in partnership with TÜV SÜD, created a practical approach with its “Smart Industry Readiness Index: Catalyzing the transformation of manufacturing.” This index provides a holistic approach and assigns equal importance to organization, process and technology. Leading manufacturers have committed to digital transformation and have been busy in their multiyear implementation plans.

Digital transformation journey for manufacturers

With a directional understanding of the concept, manufacturers need to engage in the required customization and craft company-specific plans. The following are four ways some manufacturers deploy digital transformation at their companies:

1. Build a digital transformation team and dedicate the required resources.

  • Assign a cross-functional team to craft the high-level vision of what digital transformation could look like at the company. From this vision, work to create a strategy to be deployed over an extended period (to be set and with the expectation to be regularly reviewed).
  • For large corporations with multiple business units or very independently run plants, ensure cross-business unit or cross-plant representation.

2. Provide upper management endorsement with ongoing support and funding.

  • Have this team provide regular progress reports to upper management.
  • Keep upper management engaged and involved to confront organizational barriers.
  • Make upper management’s support and transformation progress visible to the entire organization — ideally through a regular internal communications campaign.

3. Involve and gain buy-in from the entire organization.

  • Transformation is about disruption, and this requires serious change management.
  • Most manufacturers don’t view the goal of digital transformation to be one of “lights out manufacturing.” They view the operators playing an elevated role, empowered through advanced tools to make better decisions.

4. Bring in the experts when internal resources are overloaded or to aid in those areas where in-house expertise is lacking.

  • For digital transformation to deliver on its promise, it needs to be broad in scope. Not all expertise will be found in-house. It is well worth investing in experts.
  • Not to be underestimated is the organization component of the Smart Industry Readiness Index. Assessing the organizational maturity early is wise as the success of many projects depends on the human element.

The role of the SI in the digital transformation

Something that is common in the implementation of digital transformation is the need for data. This represents for many the first challenge, as most brownfield manufacturing plants and machines were not designed with data capturing and sharing in mind. In addition, many sites include a colorful patchwork of legacy systems — most of them proprietary in nature — further adding complexity. This is, nevertheless, the environment SIs work in daily.

The most fundamental step in the digital transformation is to network the factory floor, and this is a typical area of delivery for SIs. It is worth noting that networking will also require appropriate cybersecurity protections, also a growing area of expertise for SIs.

While connectivity likely is the first step for most, it is just that: the first step. Later steps deal with making this data “visible,” i.e., putting it in context. An example could be providing a machine operator with key indicators for their machine and the overall production to make better decisions. One example is when to schedule a maintenance break to deal with an issue indicated by a predictive asset monitoring software.

Many additional steps can follow deploying adaptive and intelligent systems once the organization has taken care of the basics and gained confidence to go to the next steps. Some of these more advanced tools provide SIs with opportunities to further specialize. Manufacturers appreciate deep industry vertical expertise in their SIs.

Beyond the deployment of technology, SIs can play an emerging role as an advisor in the early stages of digital transformation plan development. SIs can supplement cross-functional teams with cost estimates and technology options. They also can help manufacturers determine the readiness of their human resources through Smart Industry Readiness Index audits.

Digital transformation is transforming the SI

The digital transformation creates exciting opportunities for SIs with the need for renewal of their value propositions, offers and business models. In some ways, some of these changes will help SIs address some of their own company challenges. Playing a key role in the digital transformation of their manufacturing clients allows them to develop stronger links and move away from commoditization pressures. Digital transformation also excites and attracts younger generations, who SIs must compete for harder than ever to recruit.

Where does CSIA come into play?

CSIA believes manufacturing will be revolutionized through the digital transformation and that SI integrators will play a key role. These are exciting times. CSIA aims to help SIs prepare and position themselves to take advantage of this great moment in time. The annual executive conference provides attendees with the opportunity to learn and network. The theme for the 2020 CSIA Executive Conference is “Claiming the Role of the SI in the Digital Transformation.” In preparation for that, CSIA is having monthly webinars and discussions on the topic, along with a regional event in the Chicago area in October.

CSIA is a global, nonprofit professional association with a mission to advance the practice of control system integration to benefit members and their clients. CSIA has more than 400 system integration company members and 100 vendor partners in 27 countries. CSIA is a CFE Media content partner.


Jose M. Rivera
Author Bio: Jose M. Rivera has been CEO of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) since March 2015. He works to help independent system integrators build better companies through the adoption of the association’s best practices guidelines. His global career in the automation industry, including Emerson Electric, Schneider Electric and Siemens, has spanned six countries, most often with regional or global leadership roles.