How to find your perfect partner: System integrators must rise to meet modern industry’s needs
The concept of Industry 4.0 promises fantastic things, from smart electric motors automatically adjusting speed and torque, to management software that can predict failures months in advance. The benefits are obvious, but the tricky task of implementing such systems is where grand plans quickly become unstuck. Here, Sean Robinson, service leader at industrial automation expert, Novotek UK & Ireland, guides us through the System ntegration (SI) minefield.
Imagine you want to add an extension to your house. If you were to attempt the process without professional advice, there’s no limit to the mess you can get yourself into. Industry is much the same. Without oversight, you can quite easily fall victim to Murphy’s Law — what can go wrong, will go wrong.
Modern systems integration is the point where the month-old software meets the decade old motor, or vice versa. It doesn’t take much imagination to predict significant problems arising from such a marriage. Predicting and assessing these issues and then suggesting an ideal solution is the role of the system integrator (SI).
These are things you likely already know. With industry 4.0 and Industrial IoT (IIoT) looming on the horizon, companies providing system integration services have their work cut out. But what makes for a good SI in this modern world?
IT – OT convergence
Historically, information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) have been entirely distinct from one another, with intelligent IT software commanding the ‘dumb’ OT devices. In tackling such an environment, it makes perfect sense that traditional integrators typically specialise in one of these disciplines and are not as proficient with the other.
When applied to the modern industrial environment, this approach is severely lacking. The rise of high speed and bandwidth communications allows for previously unimaginable levels of cooperation and data sharing. Modern SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) and IIoT systems manage and collate gigabytes of transmitted and received data in real time, from both IT and OT devices.
Consequently, any system integrator that works exclusively in either discipline will see half the picture and can then only ever produce half a solution.
Built to last?
This is a problem not just in terms of practical integration, but also in the level of consultancy an integrator can provide. Many businesses will specify a system to suit their current needs and address ongoing issues, but don’t consider that the system should be built to last the next five or even 10 years. It then becomes the role of the integrator to advise the customer to invest with scalability in mind, which requires the integrator’s understanding the pros and cons of systems available on the market.
Therefore, the modern SI will meet the client while equipped with expertise they need to deconstruct and assess the client’s requests.
Throughout that process, many client specific situational questions will be raised and should be answered by the SI. Issues such as the overall needs of the client and whether the proposition fulfils them, compatibility between the proposed and legacy systems and the economics of any potential business disruption during the integration.
It could be the case where the client has made grand plans, only for the SI to come back explaining that they’re unworkable. On the other hand, radical upheavals may be prescribed by the SI, and the company might balk at the initial outlay.
Here at Novotek, as a supplier of industrial automation systems, we work exclusively with SIs that fulfil this modern definition. However, when moving in these circles you overhear some horror stories. It’s not uncommon that when we meet with customers and prospects, we find a patchwork of systems across an organisation that have been installed without a comprehensive understanding of a company’s operations and structure. As such, there are many systems in place with near-identical functionality, and the siloed approach means businesses have no real indication of what data they already hold.
In these examples where a half-baked solution is applied, the result is at best a stopgap, and at worst setting your business up for significant financial and technical problems in the future. However, choosing the right SI can propel your business to new heights.
Battling company treasuries for the best, not necessarily cheapest, result is an initially thankless task, but absolutely required. Brows may initially be furrowed, and bottom lines might initially sink, but down the line the benefits of a complete, integrated system over a cheaper, passable solution become crystal clear.
The author is Sean Robinson, service leader at industrial automation expert, Novotek UK & Ireland
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