10 ways to enhance your partnership with a control systems integrator

10 ways to enhance your partnership with a control systems integrator

Control systems integration is the key to unlocking your manufacturing facility’s profitability and flexibility through digitalization. But to get there, you need a qualified control systems integrator—and a plan for making the most of that collaboration.

Beyond automation, toward integration

In the manufacturing plant of the future, you will find no islands of automation or operational silos. Instead, electronic data will move securely and seamlessly from one cohesive operational unit to another, as well as between ERP and MES systems. This flow of data will link the plant floor to the boardroom, giving facility and company leaders the real-time operation insights they need to take action and move meaningfully closer to their business objectives. 

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The thing is, that vision is no longer the future. It’s now. Automation isn’t enough—to compete in a crowded manufacturing landscape and bring high-quality goods to market quickly, manufacturers need a control systems integration strategy. That’s the key to turning operational data into your greatest business asset. 

The good news? You don’t have to get there alone. A qualified control systems integrator—or team of integrators—can help you tailor your facility’s digitalization strategy to meet your unique business drivers and ensure that your plant is future-proof, whatever comes next in the manufacturing landscape. 

How can you find the right control systems integrator for your project? And once you do, how can you get the most of that relationship—from the first day to long after project delivery? In ten practical steps, this article will answer these questions and help you set up your next control systems integration project for success. 

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Before you begin

1. Know your business case.

For a control systems integrator to help you move forward effectively, you need to know where you’re going. Is this the right time for a greenfield project? Or is a retrofit more suitable to your situation? Perhaps you simply want to know if you can meet demand more efficiently by tapping under-used capacity that you already have. 

A well-defined business case is the key to answering these questions and mapping a successful path forward—a path that aligns your current financial resources with your future business objectives. It should be grounded in historical data while looking ahead at predicted demand, giving you the fundamentals you need to understand how your business will stay competitive over the next 5, 10, or 15 years. 

From this big-picture analysis, you can begin to drill down to the practical implications of business growth. How will your headcount change over time to meet your business drivers? What new equipment or storage solutions will you need? What sort of utilities will you require to support future expansion? How soon will your investment in these resources and capabilities generate a return? 

With your business plan clearly defined, you’ll have the context that your control systems integrator needs to help you make confident decisions about your plant-floor automation strategy. Your integrator will be able to guide you toward solutions that align with your business drivers while positioning you for greater profitability and growth. In other words, the business plan provides a roadmap for everything that follows. By sharing that roadmap with your integrator, you’ll get where you need to be much more efficiently.

2. Define your manufacturing process.

A control systems integration strategy isn’t simply layered onto facility design—it’s part of facility design, and it needs to be developed with a deep understanding of your end-to-end manufacturing process and its constituent parts. 

That’s why it’s important to come to your control systems integrator with a well-defined map of your complete manufacturing process. That will position your integrator to identify and eliminate operational silos and build pathways for exchanging data between your technologies, networks, OEM-provided equipment, and other sources—from one end of your manufacturing process to another.

3. Develop a control philosophy.

A control philosophy is a high-level document that defines your organization’s unique approach to digitalization. Your business case and manufacturing process will help shape your control philosophy, as will external factors such as the nature of your industry and the supply chain dynamics that support it. The goal is to reach internal consensus about what digitalization means for your organization. That way, you and your control systems integrator can make decisions consistently and quickly as your project develops. 

No two control philosophies look the same, but they should all include guidance around important factors such as your automation strategy, your tolerance for risk, your approach to collecting and utilizing data, your safety strategy, and your strategy for selecting key vendors. 

Some organizations prefer to develop their control philosophy (or update an existing one) in partnership with a control systems integrator. A skilled integrator has the tools necessary to bring multiple stakeholders together from across your organization and lead them through workshops specially designed to help you tailor your philosophy to suit your operation and support your business needs. 

4. Select the right control systems integrator for the job.

Selecting a control systems integrator may be one of the most impactful decisions you make in terms of your future success as an integrated and digitalized enterprise. Choose well, and you’ll reach your digitalization goals on the straightest possible path, gaining efficiencies and flexibility as you go. Choose an integrator who’s not suited to your industry or the scope of your project, however, and you may find yourself off-course.

The key to making an appropriate selection is to ensure that your needs and your integrator’s skillset are aligned.

What are your needs?

Your business plan will play a key role here. Use it to identify your digitalization objectives, what you need to meet them, and where your current gaps are in terms of internal capabilities. From there, you can begin to understand exactly what you need from your control systems integrator. For example: 

  • Do you need someone who can help you develop your control systems philosophy?
  • Do you need cyber security expertise?
  • Do you need ongoing post-startup support?

What is the integrator’s skillset?

Now that you understand your organizational needs, you can examine potential partners for a good fit. Technical skills are important, but so are the soft skills needed to help build consensus and alignment across a complex organization. 

Technical skills

  • Knowledge of your industry and its regulatory requirements
  • Experience with automation technologies, network design, etc.
  • Experience working with a broad range of OEMs and other vendors
  • Extensive knowledge of ERP and MES infrastructure
  • A deep understanding of data integration and management 

Soft skills

  • A demonstrated capacity to build organizational consensus 
  • The ability to collaborate with experts from across the project value chain and represent their needs throughout delivery, including plant operations, process engineers, utilities and IT experts, technical and trade partner leads, equipment suppliers, etc.
roadmap with steps to working with a systems integrator roadmap with steps to working with a systems integrator

Choose an integrator who brings a proven roadmap to the table, giving you a clear picture of the journey from initial kick-off to post-delivery support.

Check your assumptions.

There’s only one way to be certain that your control systems integrator has you covered in all the ways that matter to your project: ask them. 

The field of control systems integration is vast and uneven, and the expertise that each integrator or team of integrators brings to the table is different. That’s why comparing on price alone and assuming that all integrators offer the same services could leave you vulnerable. Before you make a commitment, look closely at your integrator’s scope, and be sure that it includes all the services and deliverables you expect. 

Having these conversations up front can help you find the right integrator for your job and ensure that their understanding matches yours in terms of the best way forward. 

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During project delivery

5. Invest in an effective user interface.

When it comes to the user interface (UI) that your operators rely on every day, work with your integrator to answer two key questions: 

  1. Does the UI reflect how the end user interacts with it?
    Will end users be stationed in a control room or walking the plant floor? In other words, will they be working with a mouse and a desktop interface, or holding tablets with touchscreens? That makes an important difference when it comes to the hierarchy of information displayed on a given screen, and the size and function of buttons and other click-able (or tap-able) elements. 
  2. Does the UI reflect who the end user is?
    In today’s highly competitive labor market, manufacturers need to marshal every resource to attract and retain a new generation of skilled workers. That includes thinking through your UI from the perspective of an end user who has only known a world of highly responsive, comfortable, and easy-to-use personal technologies. They will expect the same modern user experience from the technologies they interact with at work—and if they don’t get it, they may seek a different workplace. 

6. Look at safety from multiple perspectives.

Work with your integrator to develop a 360-degree approach to safety—one that keeps your people, your equipment, and your product protected from harm. 

Getting this approach right starts with your control philosophy, which should include guidance about how digitalization will support and contribute to safety across your plant. Examples of a holistic, digitally-backed safety strategy could include: 

  • A health & safety perspective: How will you leverage machine automation to protect the wellbeing of operators and prevent ergonomic injuries?
  • A regulatory perspective: How will you leverage standardized and validated controls to keep your end consumers safe from the risk of product contamination?
  • A cyber perspective: What is your ongoing strategy for managing security patches and overseeing the resilience of your digital network?

A qualified control systems integrator can help you address each of these perspectives as part of your overall digitalization strategy.

7. Think of operator training as risk mitigation.

A good control systems integrator will develop and implement a robust plant integration strategy, but that’s not all—their skills are also essential when it comes to testing that strategy and ensuring that your operators are ready to put it into action. 

Testing and training typically happen in a virtual environment that mirrors the real-world facility down to its unit operations. This virtual environment gives stakeholders an opportunity to simulate plant operations without putting real-world resources at risk. This strategy unlocks two key advantages: 

  1. For control systems integrators: The simulation environment provides an opportunity to fully test every aspect of the system as designed and write more robust controls before moving into facility checkout and commissioning.  
  1. For end users: Working inside a simulation environment gives operators the chance to familiarize themselves with the tools they’ll rely on and experience different manufacturing scenarios before interacting with actual products.

Manufacturers who leverage simulation to benefit both end users and control systems integrators have a lower risk of unexpected delays or product losses as they begin plant operations. If speed-to-market and product quality are mission-critical to your startup plan, consider investing in this area. 

Should you invest in a full plant simulation or digital twin? 

The answer to that question depends on your tolerance for risk. 

If you’re a life science manufacturer, running process simulations on a digital twin can accelerate the validation process, helping you streamline your regulatory compliance strategy and begin cGMP manufacturing without the risk of product loss. 

But many food and beverage manufacturers are equally motivated to invest in process simulations as a risk management strategy, particularly those who need to continuously meet consumer demand while simultaneously expanding or modernizing their ongoing operations. In a scenario like that, testing the startup process in a digital twin can help food and beverage manufacturers avoid unnecessary downtime and significantly lower the risk of a product shortfall. 

8. Know what your integrator is—or isn’t—documenting.

What’s covered in your control systems integrator’s hand-off package? A lot can change between initial design, construction, commissioning and startup—will your integrator update the final and complete product documentation to match the as-built facility? 

You might expect the answer to be yes, but that’s not always the case. Integrators vary in terms of their documentation approach. If your post-startup maintenance strategy depends on a complete and updated documentation package, be sure to have this conversation with your integrator from day one and check that it’s covered in their project scope and estimate.

9. Keep an open and active dialogue.

An experienced control systems integrator will provide regular status updates throughout delivery, but it’s a good idea for you to take a proactive role here, too. 

Start by having a conversation during project launch about how often you’d like to check in, based on the scope and complexity of the project. This will help ensure that check-ins with your integrator are purposeful and that you receive timely progress and quality updates. These check-ins will also provide both you and your integrator with the opportunity to ask questions, check assumptions, and validate the path forward while there’s still time to make small adjustments and ensure the best possible outcome. 

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After site deployment and startup

10. Clarify your post-startup support needs.

When it comes to offering support and maintenance services following facility startup, no two control systems integrators are the same. 

Some operate purely on a project-by-project basis, which means you’ll need to develop support capabilities internally or seek them from a new third-party provider. Other integrators offer a full suite of post-startup services, from proactive 24/7 system support to periodic checkups—and everything in between. 

Understanding your post-startup needs ahead of time, and using that understanding as part of your integrator selection criteria, is the key here. For example, if you don’t have the capacity to manage cyber security in-house, look for an integrator who can provide that service for you in the long-term. You’ll benefit from their continuity of service, and you’ll have peace of mind—after all, who better to protect your system than the same team that designed it from the ground up. 

Could your next partnership lead to a digitalization breakthrough?

If you’ve identified digital transformation as a strategic initiative, or if you have a capital project on your horizon and you want to maximize its profitability, flexibility and resilience, start a conversation with a qualified control systems integration team. It could be the best move you make toward your operation’s fully digitalized, data-driven future.  

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