The players on the system manufacturing side may not be many, but system integrators are plentiful and use the products of companies such as Rockwell, Honeywell, Siemens, Schneider Electric, ABB, Fanuc and others to install custom solutions for them.

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According to Bob Lowe, executive director of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA), more and more companies are coming back from abroad to the US because the increasing benefits of manufacturing locally. “These benefits include greater sustainability, lower transportation costs, lower risk and a closer and more reliable supply of raw materials to name a few,” he explains. “These and other factors are driving processors toward more and better automation as a means of reducing production costs, improving quality and repeatability, and increasing competitiveness.”

CSIA conducts semiannual surveys in conjunction with JP Morgan to test the health of the automation industry, investigating elements such as recent performance and future expectations. “Not only is the desire for automation growing,” says Lowe, “automation sales are estimated to increase by 10 percent annually. Much of this will be driven by the power and energy sectors.”

Automation in the food industry is on an upswing as well and expected to continue to grow. That’s because more demands are being made of food processors than ever before: increased food safety performance, higher productivity, better order fulfillment accuracy, higher profitability, increased regulatory compliance and several other factors that automation is well suited to provide.

Germany-based CSB International Sales Director Patrick Pilz says automation is more prevalent in Europe than North America, but this will change as market conditions get tougher. “Europe, largely because of the higher costs of production, has been forced to be more progressive, which is why you see more material handling automation included in customer projects here than you do in North America.” 

A material handling system (MHS) can be as simple as individual pieces of production equipment tied together to execute a recipe. In contrast, ERP deals with automatic reporting and the manipulation of data involved in monitoring costs, productivity, downtime, purchasing, maintenance, traceability, recalls and other key issues.

“The US and Canada are pretty much on par with Europe on the ERP side, but MHS isn’t as developed in North America because space and labor are not as expensive, and food manufacturers don’t want a long depreciation period,” Pilz says. “The ROI on adding automated MHS systems could take up to 15 years in some cases, and operators on this continent are more used to two to four years. Plus, production machines come equipped with their own internal PLCs anyway. But there’s still a big advantage in tying them all together in an overarching system.” Despite the added cost, going the distance in MHS for producers in Europe has been worth it and, in fact necessary, for them to remain competitive.

According to CSIA’s membership list, food manufacturers are the largest users of system integrators in the US. “Oil and gas is also very big, followed by water and wastewater, chemicals, petrochemicals and power and energy [electricity, gas and solar and wind alternatives], followed by metals and mining,” Lowe says.

“One of the beauties of our industry is the transfer of knowledge from one sector to another,” notes Lowe. “It’s a cross-pollination process. A good example, for instance, is how pharmaceuticals have elevated food.”

This article takes a look at four system integration stories.

Automation feeds existing production line

Country Maid began in a local kitchen in 1991 and has been making pastries and baked goods ever since. Over the years, the business has grown substantially, and in 2012, the company decided to invest in an automated facility to meet growing demand for its Butter Braid pastries.

Specifically, it wanted to add automation to the process to ensure each batch would retain the same high-level quality as the last. The company enlisted the help of Interstates Control Systems Inc., a system integrator and solution partner of the Rockwell Automation Partner Network program.

At the time, Country Maid was at a crossroads, trying to decide whether to break a hole in its new ceiling to install a larger mixer or put in a smaller one with added automation that could feed its existing production line, as well as a new line it wanted to add.

With the help of Interstates, along with its own homework, Country Maid decided on the latter and chose a PlantPAx process automation system from Rockwell Automation as the core system for the two lines, says Reid Vander Veen, business development manager at Interstates. “One thing that impressed us,” he recalls, “was the amount of preparation Country Maid did on its own before involving us. Its officials studied the issue, went to technical trade shows and knew what they wanted in the end. This kind of preparation typically makes the job of a company like ours easier.”

Interstates works with software and hardware solutions suppliers on many fronts to meet specific customer requirements. “Through automation, we managed to avoid having to cut a hole in the roof of Country Maid’s new building to house a larger mixer, and the savings from that downsizing more than covered the cost of the new control system we installed,” Vander Veen explains.

The PlantPAx system includes a visualization and reporting portal, as well as a process historian that allows operators to view production trends, such as the balance of ingredients, and make adjustments to recipes. The system also allows operators to track and record data to pinpoint production trends in real time on a variety of dashboards.

One of these parameters is dough consistency, which previously created issues Country Maid was unable to resolve. With its new software, however, operators were able to determine that the problem was related to changing climatic conditions in the plant’s four flour storage silos located outside the building and take appropriate action. 

The system also provides other insights that affect production. “Operators can view how long a downtime lasts, and when and where it occurs on a line,” says Raymond Berning, lead control systems developer at Interstates. “This level of insight tightens the control of production.”

By choosing one highly automated mixer and not having to raise the roof of its facility to accommodate it, Country Maid saved $120K on equipment and avoided extensive production downtime. It also can utilize labor more efficiently because of the new data collection capabilities, resulting in a further $45K savings per year.

Fully integrated system

In Europe, CSB International installed a central turnkey IT solution at the meat processing plant of the leading Belgium Colruyt Group supermarket chain. The new system meets the many detailed requirements of the meat industry and has enabled Colruyt to replace all its previous standalone software programs with a fully integrated system that delivers optimized information and material flows for increased efficiency and transparency.

The system features 50 software-controlled “I-points” around the factory that coordinate and control purchasing, cutting, batch processing, production, nutritional value management, quality management and traceability. The system also includes business process management and a document management system. 

All the equipment on the hardware and software side is manufactured by CSB. The system includes mobile data entry units that communicate with the central system to ensure fast, error-free information that delivers important cost savings.

CSB International CEO Erwin Kooke says a good ERP system more than pays for itself in raw material purchases alone. “If everything is integrated in one system,” he says, “you can save 2 to 3 percent in raw material costs. If your turnover is 200 million euros, and your cost of raw materials is, say, 60 million, even a 1 percent savings is huge.”

Saving time

CSB also devised an advanced intralogistics system for Swiss cheese producer Züger Frischkäse AG in Oberbüren, Germany. The system automated the company stock control process and delivers a 50 percent time saving in picking speeds.

The CSB solution combines high bay storage with mobile picking. Every pallet in high bay storage is linked to the system with its minimum sell-by date and lot number, which ensures bays are filled according to the first-in, first-out principle.

Picking itself is paperless, since wireless technology directly transmits information to HMIs on the electric forklifts. The screen shows in which area of the zone the pallet with required product can be found.

Using Bluetooth scanners, pallet labels are scanned, the corresponding number of items is removed, and the pick quantity is confirmed. If a pallet is emptied, a new one is brought in automatically from the high bay storage area, ensuring ongoing replenishment in the packing zone so customer orders can be processed quickly and efficiently. In addition to cutting picking speeds by 50 percent, Züger has substantially reduced its error rates.

Yogurt goes digital

Noosa Finest Yoghurt, a producer of artisan Australian-style yogurt based in Bellvue, CO, used to make its products manually, beginning at the nearby dairy farm—Morning Fresh Dairy—where it still gets its fresh, raw milk each day.

“We had no expectations that our product would take off so quickly,” says Wade Groetsch, COO at Noosa. “When we picked up some large retail customers, we realized we needed to expand quickly to fulfill orders. And the only way we could increase capacity and keep up with demand was to automate. We also needed a system that would monitor the process, collect data and allow for easy future expansion.”

In 2012, Noosa built a 25,000-sq.-ft. yogurt facility located less than 165 feet from its existing facility. The company collaborated with Malisko Engineering, a Rockwell Automation Solution Partner, to design and implement a fully automated control system for yogurt production, CIP and utilities.

Malisko chose to implement a scalable, plant-wide PlantPAx control system that improves efficiency and access to real-time information. The system incorporates Cisco VPN firewall technology for remote access. “Our plant runs 24/7. In the past, when we would get a call at two in the morning that something wasn’t operating normally, one of us would have to get out of bed and drive to the plant,”  says Groetsch. “Now, with our remote monitoring capabilities, we are able to securely log in from home and assess issues offsite.”

The automation system also provides manufacturing intelligence solutions that allow the Noosa staff to capture material tracking data to investigate process issues, saving valuable time and money. “Most importantly, employees no longer need to hypothesize. Our new facility allows us to produce more yogurt and produce it more consistently,” says Groetsch. “Our manual process had many inconsistencies that frequently resulted in lost batches of yogurt. With our new system, we’ve decreased lost batches by 95 percent.”

Challenges ahead

Industry observers say many of the challenges facing system integrators today are the same that manufacturers face, including educating, attracting and acquiring skilled engineers, since not enough young people are entering engineering and technical education programs to fill the number of available jobs.

Today’s manufacturers are looking for highly specialized automation and functional expertise. And they want assurances they are getting automation support from experts in specific industries and applications. Thankfully, many system integrators are capable of design, project management and implementation on a global scale and can manage projects all over the world.


Working with CSIA

The Control System Integrators Association’s certification program is based on the standards of good business practice. “The mandate of our organization is not to certify companies on the technical side, but on the business side,” says CSIA Executive Director Bob Lowe.

“Why is that important? Because a food company wants to know that a system integration company not only has the integration expertise, it also the expertise to run a business in a sound manner,” Lowe states.

The International Society of Automation provides certifications on the technical side. In addition, most of the big automation houses have their own technical certification programs. Combining these certifications—technical proficiency with good business practices through CSIA—is a winning combination.

CSIA bases its program on a manual it produced some 15 years ago called Best Practices and Benchmarks. It has nine sections, ranging from General Management, Human Resources and Marketing to Financial Management, Project Management, Quality Assurance, Service and Support and others. “To reflect how the automation industry is continually evolving, we revise our manual from time to time,” notes Lowe. “In 2012, we released our fourth revision. Our fifth is set to come out in 2015.”

Lowe says the most significant difference between the fifth version and previous ones will be the addition of standards on cybersecurity. Cybersecurity prevents intrusions into a computer system from the outside world that could cause harm in the form of viruses or theft of data, says Lowe.

Industrial control systems are a target to hackers for a variety of reasons, such as revenge by ex-employees, stealing corporate secrets for competitive reasons or just causing mayhem.

During recent years, many attempts made, particularly by foreign interests, against infrastructures such as waste treatment systems, municipal water supplies and electrical grids. Individual companies, including food producers, are also targets.

“Imagine the damage if an intruder could go in and actually change a recipe without the company knowing it,” says Lowe. “It could result in a food safety issue and possibly injury or, at the very least, an expensive recall.”

System integrators play an important role in keeping an operation running at an optimum level—and keeping it safe. “The relationship between cybersecurity and best practices for a system integrator is significant,” emphasizes Lowe. “Cybersecurity is an important part of the overall deliverable to the client.”


For more information:

Bob Lowe, Control System Integrators Association,, 717-626-8012,

Patrick Pilz, CSB-System,, 530-554-1421,

Reid Vander Veen, Interstates Control Systems,, 605-988-0833,

Erwin Kooke, CSB-System,, +49 2451 6250,

Dan Malyszko, Malisko Engineering,, 314-621-2921,