In order to compete globally, manufacturers need to constantly improve performance and efficiency in their plants. One potential source of competitive advantage that manufacturers often overlook is their relationship with system integrators. We believe that manufacturers who build deep, strategic partnerships with a leading system integrator will have a competitive advantage over others who maintain a traditional arms-length, transactional approach.
Many manufacturers still run automation projects in the same way they have for years: they develop a scope with their internal team, send out an RFP to qualified suppliers, select the lowest bid, then repeat for each project. Manufacturers that use this approach leave substantial value on the table which could be unlocked through a different type of relationship with an integrator.
Instead, manufacturers should seek to develop an integrator relationship that goes well beyond the scope of an individual project. To maximize value, the integrator should be a partner from project concept all the way through production support, plant floor analysis, and machine optimization. At Automationnth we refer to this role as an “Architect of Automation.”
There are multiple reasons why it’s better to have a deeper, strategic partnership with a system integrator that goes beyond an individual project:
Skin in the game. We know a story of a machine builder that had a project turn sour because its customer had unrealistic expectations about the cycle time that could be achieved by the machine. Why did the customer have unrealistic expectations? It had engaged an automation consultant before the project to deliver a report with an estimated cycle time and output that could be achieved with automation. The customer put the consultant’s estimates into its project requirements. The machine builder had concerns about these expectations but took the project anyway. When it turned out that the machine builder’s concerns were valid and it was not possible to achieve the desired cycle time, the customer just pointed to the consultant’s report and said it was possible. The project resulted in litigation between the two parties.
Why did the project end up in this mess? One reason is that the automation consultant had no “skin in the game” – they were not exposed to the consequences of their advice, and therefore did not have incentive to deeply understand the risks involved and why a machine may not work to its theoretical maximum.
Having skin in the game matters in other phases of projects, too. An integrator that is engaged throughout the creation of a project’s scope, commissioning, production support, preventive maintenance, and machine optimization will have the most skin in the game – if the automation architect makes a mistake in one phase they will have to face the consequences and rectify it.
Tighter, Faster Feedback Loops. Tight, fast feedback loops are an important way to drive superior continuous improvement. For example, if a machine is installed without also having a system that measures the efficiency of the machine production, how can they know what’s causing variances in output or if there’s an easy way to boost efficiency? A company can’t optimize performance if it doesn’t have a feedback loop to measure performance, learn, and change.
A traditional transactional approach to automation where an integrator commissions a single system and then leaves limits the integrator’s ability to help the manufacturer learn and adjust. If an integrator stays on to help with post-production support and machine performance analysis, it will drive continuous improvement on the machine and allows the team to apply the knowledge gained about production to improve the way it approaches the next project. This closes the feedback loop.
Tribal knowledge. One of the most important steps in a successful automation project is fully understanding the manufacturers’ processes. At Automationnth we strive to know our customers’ processes better than they do and believe this results in superior outcomes. With a deep partnership, knowledge of a manufacturers’ processes, requirements, systems, and goals accumulate over time. Some of this knowledge may be considered “tribal” in that it is undocumented and may only be learned with time and experience. By accumulating tribal knowledge, an integrator may be able to create innovative approaches to automation that achieve the manufacturers’ goals in a way that could not be envisioned with just the requirements in an RFP. The tribal knowledge may also reduce the risk of something slipping through the cracks that was mistakenly left out of an RFP.
IIoT. Many IIoT capabilities are derived from integrating control platform properties such as motion control, sequence control, logic control, programming and HMI configurations, and integrating control system functionalities such as remote access, condition monitoring, remote diagnostics, etc. across the plant. A tightly integrated control platform will enable companies to use IIoT capabilities to achieve plant-wide process optimization and an enhanced user experience. A tightly integrated platform is best achieved through a deep partnership with an integrator that looks across all plants and systems.
For example, implementation of Predictive Analytics works by identifying a problem, generating a hypothesis, gathering the data that might be relevant to prove the hypothesis, and then using algorithms to analyze the data. The result will explain the root cause of problems, which can then be used to predict when they might happen in the future. While implementation of Predictive Analytics can result in an immense amount of value, it is well outside the normal RFP process and needs a deeper, strategic integrator partnership to succeed.
At Automationnth, we believe deep strategic partnerships are in the best interest of manufacturers and have developed our service offerings accordingly. We strive to be our customers’ “Architect of Automation” and help turn our customers’ vision and objectives into reality. As a result, our services now include pre-project strategic consultation on automation architecture, post-project production support, machine analytics, networking, and training. We have even gone so far as to create a program to help manufacturers if we are not involved in a project at all. We call this our Certified Automation Partner Program and you can learn more about it here.
If you’re a manufacturer and interested in taking your integrator relationship to the next level, we recommend taking the following steps:
- Hold a sit-down meeting with the integrator to discuss organizational goals, issues, and initiatives and ways to create value from a partnership.
- Include the integrator as early in projects as possible – even if it’s just an idea. During the design stage the integrator can help ensure your product is optimized for manufacturability and reduce risk from the project execution stage.
- Start using an integrator across the entire lifecycle of a project, including optimization of existing capital.
It is our strong belief that manufacturers which go through these steps to partner with an “Architect of Automation” will deliver superior results.