The rules of engagement remain a bit fuzzy, but manufacturers and their technology partners are getting better at reducing the risk in automation projects.

Weighing and blending operations at Baltimore nutritionals processors Nutramax moved from manual to HMI-enabled automation in the space of four months to accelerate production and leverage tax credits. Source: Nutramax Laboratories Inc.

Even integration projects that go off the rails can be passed off as successes of a kind. Problems get patched, a workable design is cobbled together, but the resemblance to the original goal may only be in passing. Two powerful forces-imprecise planning and human nature-conspire against smooth project execution. Those forces may never be completely tamed, but they can be minimized as disruptive forces to successful integration.

 “On the fly” is a phrase that comes up often when integration professionals discuss projects. Change management is the wild card in even the most detailed project-scope definitions. No matter how specific the requirements for documentation, time reporting and issue-tracking are, unforeseen technical and contractual issues arise. How well “the human element” is managed dictates the ultimate success or failure in automation integration, believes Bob Ziegenfuse, president of Exton, PA-based Advanced Automation Inc. and chairman of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). “Creating  or verifying the client’s requirements” up front smoothes the process, he says, but field changes are inevitable. Without flexibility, costs skyrocket and the client ends up frustrated.

A pilot MES application involving material-handling tracking is set to go live this month at a Sara Lee Corp. facility. Advance planning and project definition and documentation of scope “will help a bit with the project creep,” according to Tonja Luther, director of operations-strategic development at Sara Lee, Downers Grove, IL. “I don’t believe you can eliminate it entirely,” she allows, nor is elimination necessarily advisable. The essence of change management is weighing the benefits against the budget and the timeline.

Working with an integrator with an existing relationship helps mitigate project risk, though Luther adds, “if you get a lower price from another integrator, you have to weigh which is more important: money or risk.” Seasoned engineers decry that tradeoff as the Wal-Martization of professional services. In the 1930s, it actually was illegal to seek bids on engineering services, maintains Daniel G. Finazzo, manager of the packaging systems group at CH2M Hill’s Cincinnati office. Clients qualified a potential supplier, then set the price. Today, procurement personnel rule, and the process is reversed. “Synergy be damned, go with the low cost,” bemoans Finazzo.

Poorly defined projects may be a bigger problem than penny pinching. Many manufacturers have shattered the lean barrier and gone to nil in terms of in-house engineering. The high-level engineering design that should precede any automation programming tends to get short shrift. “All your real engineering is done before design freeze,” points out Vernon Trevathan, principal in St. Louis-based Control & Integration Management LLC. Unfortunately, “customers are loath to pay for that,” adds Dan McGinn, director of Schneider Electric’s end-user competency center in Detroit. If design freeze can’t be accomplished, a project is destined to go the way of Denver International Airport’s baggage-handling system, suggests Trevathan. 

Nutramax operators in capsule assembly and other production areas became advocates for automation when they saw the impact on weighing and blending. Source: Nutramax Laboratories Inc.

Who does the work?

For simple PLC and HMI integrations, a huge pool of qualified technicians exists. As projects become more complex or specialized, risk escalates. If the project isn’t clearly defined, work expands, costs go up, “and the perception is that a small company will draw a line and say, ‘More money, or we are done,’” Schneider’s McGinn says. Consequently, technology providers find themselves pulled into projects, whether they want to or not.

Major suppliers like Schneider, Rockwell Automation and Siemens spend millions each year to rescue troubled automation projects, not because their technology failed but because their brand reputations are compromised. “We have a declared policy of not being in the systems integration business,” says Glenn Graney, global leader of GE Fanuc’s solution provider program. “For risk management reasons, major customers such as Coca-Cola sometimes insist on GE’s involvement, but we always prefer a qualified systems integrator execute a project.” The Charlottesville, VA, firm exited the integration services arena last year when it sold that division to Maverick Technologies, the nation’s largest independent integrator.

Integration of automation is moving from an era when, Ziegenfuse says, “almost any breathing mammal was willing to sell the vendor’s product,” to a more professional environment. Nonetheless, integrators who are out of their element still initiate projects. “Rockwell has to spend millions each year rescuing projects,” according to Tim Ogden, global partnering program manager at the Milwaukee-based firm. Rockwell is placing greater reliance on the 39 integrators in its Solution Provider program, all of which undergo annual audits of their technical competencies and methodologies.

“We can get a black eye in a bad implementation because it is easier to blame the software, even when that’s not the problem,” agrees Yves Dufort, director of strategic programs at Wonderware Invensys’ Dollard-Des-Ormeaux, Quebec, office. Like other technology firms, Wonderware occasionally leads an integration project, as was the case two years ago at a Baltimore area manufacturer of human supplements (see story below).

Expediency drove Wonderware’s involvement in the Baltimore integration; as automation progresses, the integration reins were turned over to Total Systems Design. “Customers really need a trusted advisor, and they look to the systems integrator to be their advisor,” Rockwell’s Ogden points out.

Ideally, the integrator becomes an extension of the manufacturer’s engineering department, adds Walter Staehle, senior industry manager-food & beverage for Siemens Energy & Automation Inc., Spring House, PA. Integration specialists have the time and resources to involve everyone responsible for system functionality and accuracy, from managers to operators. If a new approach is involved, “someone with automation horsepower and intellectual capabilities” needs to be engaged. That was the case recently when Shambaugh & Son engineered a controls architecture with a hot PLC and server backup for the Marzetti plant in Horse Cave, KY, Food Engineering’s 2007 Plant of the Year award winner.

Instead of stringing together plantwide PLCs in a distributed control architecture, Shambaugh used two Siemens’ S7-400 PLCs: one to support all the I/Os and field devices, the second as a hot back-up that takes over if there is a fault in the first PLC. Massive PID drawings with unusual junctions for the CIP system prompted the integrators to consider the alternative controls. “We’re not talking about putting men on Mars,” concedes Staehle, “but stringing together 14 PLCs isn’t the greatest value for a plant. This type of approach better supports a manufacturing process with a complicating element.”

On-machine controls as an alternative to distributed controls systems is another European architecture that is finding new applications in North America, though the technology transfer is not without hiccups (see sidebar on page 56). The addition of a second frozen-cookie-dough line at Otis Spunkmeyer’s Cayce, SC, plant underscores the flexibility needed if a project is not only to be completed on time and within budget but also “work as expected,” underscores Neal Feigles, president of Stokes Material Handling Systems, Doylestown, PA.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of time to create a great plan,” he concedes, adding, “you have to do some things on the fly.” Fortunately, sufficient budget flexibility and good chemistry with the client’s staff permitted engineering changes that delivered a line that met manufacturing needs. “You need to have the faith and chemistry to go forward and trust that you’re going to be compensated for the extra work you need to do,” says Feigles.  

Similarly, controls specialist Jeremy Warnok of JMP Engineering Inc. finessed a new process for par-boiled rice he installed at Dainty Food Co. in Windsor, Ont., last year. The project demanded engineering that “happened on the fly, as the line was being installed. We had the basic process for engineering design, but we had to go through trial and error involving the controls and even physical changes in the layout.” As an embedded engineer, Warnok is the plant’s de facto engineering department. Fortunately, “I had a lot of freedom to make the process work,” he adds.

Taming the Wild West

Prior experience, industry knowledge and appropriate capabilities help qualify integrators, though the increasing complexity of automation projects and a focus on cost add risk for manufacturers. A number of accreditation programs are being developed to help food and beverage companies assess integrators’ credentials.

CSIA’s certified member program is probably the most established. Having identified business insolvency as a major contributor to integration projects gone bad, CSIA emphasizes best practices in both business and project management. The three-year-old audit program was “10 years in the making,” says Ziegenfuse, and close to 100 firms have been audited, with several technology providers strongly encouraging their top tier integrators to earn certification.

National Instruments was an early champion of CSIA certification for its Select Partners. GE Fanuc also “strongly prefers CSIA membership for premier level integrators,” according to Graney, though “we don’t require it because it really hasn’t made it outside of North America.” GE integrators who are not certified undergo an audit that closely parallels the CSIA program.

CSIA “is a very interesting organization,” Graney adds. “There is considerable passion around their self- regulation efforts, and the integration firms openly share best practices.”

While technology providers endorse certification as complementary to their own technical training, the program still needs to gain traction with end users. The same issue exists with CAP, the certified automation professional designation from ISA. “CAP has great merit,” says Graney, “but the end user community has not completely bought in. Until Kraft Foods or Pfizer says, ‘We want a CAP-certified person working on this project,’ it won’t be widely adopted.”

Trevathan, who oversees CAP as vice president-professional development for ISA, grudgingly concedes the point, though he hastens to point out the program still is in the formative stages. He cites the Project Management Professional (PMP) designation from the Project Management Institute “languished for years but now has well over 200,000 people.” Once clients began requiring PMP certification, participation mushroomed.

Less formal efforts to upgrade the caliber of integrators are underway. MESA International “is working to create standards around implementation methodologies for projects in the plant-to-enterprise space,” according to Sara Lee’s Luther, who serves on MESA’s board. The effort largely supports existing standards from groups such as ISA. As a practical matter, she allows, participation in MESA “is really a networking thing.”

The key ISA standards in food and beverage are S-95 for continuous processes and S-88, which addresses batch. “Those are tattoos that systems integrators should have on their arms,” advises Wonderware’s Dufort. S-88 is a critical competency in batch design because the logic is more rigorous than free-flowing PLC code.

CH2M Hill’s Finazzo and other packaging engineers took a stab at line integration guidelines last year under the auspices of the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI). Commercial, technical and business relationship issues were addressed, such as specifying response-time norms and viewing equipment, technology and services as systems, “not as an ‘island of automation.’” Long-term collaborations are becoming the rule, with repeat business surpassing first-time engagements. “RFP chasing has been reduced greatly,” GE’s Graney suggests. “In today’s manufacturing environment, the systems integrator shows up at the company picnic.”

Manufacturers and suppliers concede fees remain a point of contention, which is why groups like PMMI advocate collaborative negotiations that avoid scorched-earth solutions. “Many purchasing departments require three quotes,” notes Rockwell’s Ogden. At the same time, professionalism implies skill competencies that rise above commodity services. “Clients continuously handle integrators like electricians, ignoring all the implied-scope issues,” grouses Ziegenfuse. “When you run a black and a white wire through a conduit, how much interpretation is there?”

As the complexity of automation projects increases, the skill required of integrators also goes up. Efforts to professionalize this area should improve the odds of project success, particularly as outsourcing trends make these experts critical extensions of in-house engineering.

For more information:

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

Dan G. Finazzo, CH2M Hill, 513-587-7016,

Vernon Trevathan, Control & Integration Management, 314-753-8768,

Kyle Richard, Elm Electrical Inc., 413-568-0905

Glenn Graney, GE Fanuc, 434-978-5508,

Tim Ogden, Rockwell Automation, 414-382-8169,

Dan McGinn, Schneider Electric, 248-457-4130,

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

Neal Feigles, Stokes Material

Handling Systems, 215-340-2200,

Yves Dufort, Wonderware Invensys, 514-421-5135,

Tax deadlines as an integration driver

Too much time can be a bigger detriment to successful integration than short deadlines, suggests Wonderware’s Yves Dufort. At least, that was the experience at Nutramax Laboratories, A Baltimore area manufacturer of human supplements for cartilage rebuilding and brain function.

A contract to supply a private-label version of Nutramax’s Senior Moment supplement to Costco meant production would double in late 2004, forcing the company to scrap manual sifting, weighing and blending operations and implement automation. A federal tax allowance for accelerated capital depreciation that expired at the end of the year made the project more attractive, but that left only four months to complete the work, recalls Dufort, director of strategic programs. Engineers from Wonderware were marshaled to fast track the installation of a manufacturing system and its integration to a Microsoft Navision ERP.

“No one fought it, but everyone in quality assurance and production was skeptical about the change,” says Pete Patras, vice president-manufacturing at Edgewood, MD-based Nutramax.  The firm is working with a systems integrator on additional automation, but the tight deadline forced direct involvement of a technology provider in the first phase.  “They were small enough to be receptive to our specific needs and were willing to adjust to them,” Patras says of the vendor selection.

“It was very easy to get buy-in from upper management because of the financial and business expectations involved,” Dufort reflects.  “It also was easy for the operators because they saw the shift from current state to desired state in four months. If it takes a year and a half to reach desired state, it’s too long.”

At Otis Spunkmeyer, part of the system integration project involved familiarizing operators with new technology. Source: Elm Electrical Inc.

Integration hand-holding

Razzle-dazzle adds sizzle to technology, but for the end user, new isn’t sexy: it’s scary.

That describes the situation at Otis Spunkmeyer’s Cayce, SC, plant last year when plans for a new frozen cookie-dough line were being drawn up. Seven machines, from mixing and scaling to bulk packing and cartoning, were integrated by Stokes Material Handling Systems, with set up and commissioning scheduled in January and February. On-machine controls were seen as a way to speed installation, with DeviceNet cabling to support an array of photo eyes and other field devices. Both represented new approaches for Spunkmeyer, and a comfort zone had to be established.

“Otis Spunkmeyer’s maintenance chief visited Rockwell’s Automation Fair with us, then came to our offices to better understand the system and the technology,” relates Kyle Richard, an engineer with Westfield, MA-based Elm Electrical Inc., the controls subcontractor on the project. As a Rockwell Solution Provider, Elm was obliged to familiarize Spunkmeyer staffers with the technology.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of time to create a great (line-integration) plan on this project,” notes Neal Feigles, president of Stokes Material Handling Systems, which headed the effort.  The potential for on-time completion of a system that “never works as expected” existed, but a cooperative business relationship between the manufacturer and the integration partners resulted in a positive outcome.

One of the unexpected twists involved the on-machine controls: cabling between the control boxes wasn’t included with the equipment, adding cost and a scramble to resolve the issue.  “A little bit of surprise came with that technology,” now laughs Plant Manager Al Sautner, but the lesson will be incorporated in future project specs.