Maybe it was the memory of last night's 20th anniversary celebration; maybe it was the E2OH still metabolizing in his system. Either way, the technology provider kept returning to the marriage analogy to characterize the manufacturer-systems integrator relationship.

Developing a reliable network of trained technicians to install and maintain controls is a challenge for both multi-plant food companies and manufacturers of drives and other technologies. Source: SEW-Eurodrive.

Maybe it was the memory of last night's 20thanniversary celebration; maybe it was the E2OH still metabolizing in his system. Either way, the technology provider kept returning to the marriage analogy to characterize the manufacturer-systems integrator relationship.

"A marriage made in heaven may break down over time because the parties have different expectations," he mused. "The first project may come about because of a personal relationship between the integrator and the CEO, but the nuances of how that relationship will operate aren't known for a while. Only when the end-user feels the integrator is truly looking after his best interests do you have a successful marriage."

A beautiful sentiment, though a bit premature. Before food manufacturers and systems integrators can get to the altar, someone has to pop the question. Sadie Hawkins Day has been canceled, and most manufacturers still prefer casual relations and a commodities approach to integration services. "When you talk to them about long-term value," another integration expert confides, "the response is, ‘What part of $100,000 and six months don't you understand?'"

Many plant and corporate engineers would love to find a nice systems integrator to settle down with, but commitment is a scary proposition. Fortunately for manufacturing professionals tired of one-project stands, evaluation tools and a maturing integration market hold out hope for a lifetime of value-added bliss.

"I became a systems integrator without any intention of getting into it because it basically didn't exist when I started 34 years ago," reminisces Nels Tyring, CEO of Portsmouth, NH-based TVC Systems. "I was a manufacturer's rep, putting valves and actuators on aseptic processing and packaging lines at Ocean Spray plants nationwide when someone asked, ‘Can you put a control on that?' Suddenly, I was a systems integrator."

Today, integration is the ying to automation's yang, and equipment fabricators, drive manufacturers, A/E firms and outsourced engineers are involved in it, from the simplest field device to the most complex ERP solution. Low cost of entry lends a Wild West element to the business. "If you take the low bid, you might get a guy who got laid off by GE last year, has a friend who is a technician, and a year later when his wife says, ‘It would be nice if you got a real job,' goes out of business, with no way of supporting his customers," Tyring warns. When the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) sent a mailing to 3,000 integrators, 30 percent were returned, garage unknown.

Comfort in the form of standardization is arriving, and with it hope of happily-ever-after relationships. The newest tool is the certified automation professional (CAP) program from ISA, the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation society. "Vendors have made the software so easy to use, anyone can program factory controls," complains Dean Ford, director of food & beverage automation solutions at Maverick Technologies, Columbia, IL. The downside is "they're just programmers," he adds. "They could care less about the process. There's no PE you can take to be a factory automation professional. We see CAP as a need in the industry."

More than 100 individuals have passed CAP's exam to gauge technical proficiency in the program's first 15 months, including a score of Maverick associates. Beginning next year, applicants also will need at least five years experience in the automation field and a bachelor's degree in engineering, chemistry, math or other technology-related disciplines.

Technical competence may be less an issue than business stability, many technology specialists believe. If a steady relationship is to be built, food manufacturers need some assurance that their integrator will be around to maintain and update systems. "Projects fail not because integrators lack technical expertise but because they're poor business people," insists Norm O'Leary, CSIA's executive director. About 80 of CSIA's 250 member firms have successfully completed audits of their financial management, human resources, business development and other business practices to qualify as registered members.

The program draws high praise from technology providers such as Rockwell Automation and Wonderware, both of which considered making the audits a requirement for their own certified-integrator programs. Despite the traction CSIA's program has gained in the technical community, it largely is off food manufacturers' radar. "I have yet to see a RFQ that asked, ‘Are you a CSIA audited member?'" admits Ford, though Maverick is CSIA certified.

CSIA also offers a model for manufacturers to score integrators and select an appropriate service provider. The evaluation goes well beyond relevant experience, years in business, personnel qualifications and references to include software license transfer practices, errors and omissions insurance and employee turnover rates. It's unclear how many food and beverage processors have taken advantage of it, though. "Clients are so short staffed, they don't know how to select a good integrator," allows Robert Zeigenfuse, CSIA chairman. "Oftentimes on bids, I'm asked, ‘Do you know Wonderware? Have you done an installation?' and that's it."

Systems integrators come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with few, if any, providing all levels of automation support. Wonderware developed this five-tier model to help define the different levels of integration services. Source: Invensys Wonderware.

Integration hierarchy

Because it affects almost every aspect of the modern manufacturing organization, integration is a broad term. Tying together systems and controls occurs at every level, from the simplest field devices to financial reports delivered to the board of directors. Distinguishing between the types of integration services can be confusing. Invensys Wonderware did as good a job as any in defining integration, segmenting it into five levels: the process, including pumps, valves and motors; direct, single-loop controls; process supervision, such as batch control; production supervision, the manufacturing execution system (MES) level; and ERP, the business and supply chain management level.

ERP integration is a world unto itself, observes Jay Jeffreys, who heads Wonderware's integrator program, and integrators of plant management and scheduling systems don't deal with control valves. On the other hand, "a lot of guys selling loop controllers could do much more sophisticated integration projects," he points out. They also would prefer to do higher-end projects. Consequently, basic integration work becomes the shakiest tier in the integration pyramid.

The problem is most acute when different technologies come into the market. While popular elsewhere, decentralized control is foreign to North American manufacturers. Companies like SEW-Eurodrive must develop an integrator network to install and support their decentralized controls. Dave Ballard, a vice president with the Lyman, SC, manufacturer, is spearheading SEW's effort.

"Our motion controls engineers spend a lot of time meeting with integrators, evaluating their skill levels and geographic service reach, ability to take on additional projects, then training them on our drives and updating them," Ballard explains. "A lot of them are one or two person shops, which is scary." Large integrators thumb their noses at these types of integration projects, and firms with 7-10 people often are tied to competing technology companies. "Some of the sharpest individuals we're working with have a two-year electronics degree, a hunger to learn new technologies and a willingness to support controls when someone changes a parameter and a line goes down," he says. "Some of the higher-degreed guys don't want to do field installations."

At the other end of the integration spectrum is ERP. The ERP system of record for a growing number of midsized food companies comes from Atlanta-based Ross Systems Inc. The firm relies on a handful of integrators to implement programs for activities such as supply chain management, purchasing, tracking & tracing, forecasting and customer management.

Ross's approach to integrator selection is similar to that of many food manufacturers: work with a small pool of competent, financially stable firms and support them with a steady stream of business. "There's a courtship period, because this is a relationship based on trust," adds Gary Nowacki, senior vice president at Ross. "It's not just a headcount or their years in business but also their direction, track record and number of engineers and technicians committed to Ross."

A collaborative approach to factory automation increases value to both manufacturers and systems integrators. Source: SEW-Eurodrive.

Neighborhood support

Elements of Ross's approach can be found at McCormick Canada's London, ON, plant. A systems integrator who was part of the electrical contractor's team that handled a 2003 plant consolidation project continues to service the manufacturer. On the other hand, controls engineering is the responsibility of JMP Engineering, based in the same Canadian town.

"It's easy to become reliant on a systems integrator because they are very good at doing the iterations, revisions and documentation tracking that's critical to maintaining and upgrading plant automation," says Plant Manager Ainslie McKinnon. The facility boasts 20 packaging lines fed by multiple blending processes. Data collection and reporting to improve overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) is the current priority.

By partnering with one of Canada's largest independent integrators, McKinnon is able to tap expertise that extends beyond the food industry. Since its founding in 1987 by two former Kellogg engineers, JMP has grown to a six-office network with more than 60 engineers in Ontario and the Detroit area. "One of our strategic approaches is to be local to our customers," says Mike Ropp, manager of JMP's food & beverage group. While the McCormick project began with OEE analysis of packaging lines, Ropp believes the solutions put in place could segue to inventory control, quality management and work-in-progress improvements with tremendous ROI.

"Gauging a client's goals before setting criteria for data to be gathered and analyzed really speaks to the need for understanding their business goals," he adds. To serve manufacturers who downsize in-house engineering, "we have people embedded in their engineering departments. We may be the sole source for electrical engineering or systems integration for continuous improvement."

That's the model now in place in the European automotive industry, points out Zeigenfuse, founder of Exton, PA's Advanced Automation Inc. US automotive firms, on the other hand, continue to over-manage projects and beat up integrators over price, squeezing out efficiency in the process. "Every hour we don't spend writing function code is a wasted automation dollar," he laments. "Corporate engineers should focus on reliability engineering and outsource the mundane maintenance and implementation engineering." Food engineers understand that gaps must be closed and root-cause analysis done after the initial installation, and that requires continuing third-party involvement. Unfortunately, "upper management is oblivious to that," Zeigenfuse says. "Gaps are simply patched, and degradation occurs."

Advanced Automation is one of a dozen independent integrators billing more than $5 million annually for professional services. Another is Polytron Inc. and E2M Inc., an integration house in Norcross, GA. E2M focuses on delivering packaging systems, including mechanical engineering work; Polytron complements with electrical engineering design and control systems integration. The organization is a Rockwell Automation solution provider, Wonderware certified developer and GE Intellution systems integrator.

"We have some one-off customers," says Brent Stromwell, Poyltron's vice president of business development, but ongoing relationships with a dozen or so large clients accounts for the bulk of the work performed by the group's approximately 90 engineers. "We focus on taking away the finger pointing and reducing risk for the customer," Stromwell says. "Risk is the biggest concern: their business and personal success is based on how successful the project is."

Rockwell's Chris Vaidean strongly seconds that view. "The customer goes through a cost-risk tradeoff and risk analysis when deciding whose software and which systems integrator to use," says Vaidean, who, along with Mayfield Heights, OH-based Andy Stump, manages Rockwell's systems integration program. "Continuity leads to lower risk."

The ideal relationship would involve shared risk and reward between the food client and the integrator, suggests Walter Staehle, senior industry manager-food & beverage for Siemens Energy & Automation Inc., Springhouse, PA. "As director of manufacturing execution, I had no intention to haggle over $5,000 licensing fees; talk to procurement about that," says Staehle, who filled that position in his career with Kraft Foods. "Talk to me about organizational value."

Food engineers "need help in explaining how I'm going to get a ROI to the board. Help me find the good lumber," Staehle continues. Technology providers and integrators with skin in the game are more likely to forge the automation marriages they crave than those who maintain a client-service provider relationship.

For more information:

Robert Zeigenfuse, Advanced Automation Inc., 610-458-8700,

Norm O'Leary, Control System Integrators Association, 800-661-4914

Jay Jeffreys, Invensys Wonderware, 432-282-0281

Pat Gorman, iPact Manufacturing Solutions,

Mike Ropp, JMP Engineering, 519-652-2741

Dean Ford, Maverick Technologies, 973-953-3622,

Brent Stromwell, Polytron, 678-328-2955

Andy Stump, Rockwell Automation, 440-646-4391

Scot McLeod, Ross Systems Inc., 770-351-9600,

Dave Ballard, SEW-Eurodrive, 841-661-1269

Walter Staehle, Siemens Energy & Automation, 215-646-7400

Nels Tyring, TVC Systems, 603-431-5251,