Systems Integration – Enabling Best-In-Class Site Equipment Communication
Systems integration is the term given to the process of enabling communication and cooperation between separate components to function as one system. In a real-world example this could be a conveyor and flow wrapper machine sharing data, communicating and collaborating with each other to ensure aligned operations, rather than relying manual monitoring and control. For example if one machine changed speeds then the other would adapt its operations accordingly in a fully automated process.
Modern-day factory and warehouse new builds will often have automation and the enabling of systems integration at the heart of design phase, whereas legacy settings will rely on the skills of the automation or systems integration engineer to enable older machinery and equipment to connect intelligently with each other.
Systems Integration Types and Common Tools
A SCADA (Supervisory Control & Data Acquisition) system is one where hardware and software components are connected to create interfaces that enable control of production processes and monitoring of production data in real-time. Typically held away from the machinery itself, the data is accessible from multiple devices, either on-site or in remote locations.
HMIs (Human Machine Interfaces) collect and display data for a particular machine or piece of equipment. Not dissimilar to a SCADA system, an HMI is however typically local rather than remote, and displayed next to the equipment’s control panel.
A PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) is essentially a purpose-built industrial computer that is part of the control panel and is able to control equipment within a factory setting. Including a CPU Module and input/output devices, which communicate with each other through effective programming using typically ethernet or other industry standard protocols.
A DCS (Distributed Control System) is a computerised control network for a particular plant or process that has a large number of control loops. Using a system of sensors, controllers and computers the DCS is able to connect input/output data from devices such fans, valves, VFDs to the main control room, where automated decisions can be made in real time across multiple areas of the plant’s processes. In contrast to a PLC, a DCS enables interaction and control of multiple processes and equipment pieces within the factory setting.
Benefits of System Integration
The role of systems integration is increasingly important in providing value to both the production site and the end customer through increased efficiency, quality and agility.
Direct lines of communication between components allow machinery and equipment to adjust to varying environments and production influences such as seasonality, temperature, output rates and downtime.
Efficient data collation and analysis through well-built automation systems allows easier identification and resolution to technical problems and errors without reliance on human input. This data also acts as a record for compliance requirements and management and operational reporting.
Real-time data sharing reduces the need for manual data entry, thus reducing the risk for errors and also enables useful tools such as publisher-subscriber data distribution models and event-driven architectures.
The communication of data systems not on the main operational systems can also reduce the load on the main systems to enable more efficient running.
Scaling up can become easier through being able to change productions settings simply through the automation system settings and control panels.
Challenges to System Integration
Cost and lack of knowledge resource are frequent reasons why systems integration can be challenging to introduce within a production environment. The role of the systems integrator is to use knowledge in areas such as programming, computer networking and business process management to create the connections and logic between the components. These types of skillsets are still relatively scarce and come at a cost.
Clear goals for the automated system and the data used within it must be where the process starts, whether this is to solve an operational problem, improve error or quality rate or simply speed up production. Businesses often fail to get automation projects off the ground because they are starting with the glitter of Industry 4.0 and IOT terminology rather than the issues or opportunity that the automation will bring.
Lack of stakeholder management for those using the system or sharing/using the data is another stumbling block, leading to distrust and disengagement from the project.
A well-researched feasibility phase, including cost-benefit analysis, can reap huge benefits in getting a successful project launched and delivered, identifying where technical resource is required to ensure a fit-for-purpose solution that is believed and propagated across all business stakeholder groups.
Issues with compatibility of programming of different equipment manufacturers e.g. PLCs means that inter-equipment communication can be a technical and challenging process, though steps towards common protocol have been seen over recent years, for example with the International standard IEC 61131-3:2013
Use of Systems Integration to enable Best-In-Class Operations
Faced with a multitude equipment manufacturers, Production and Site Managers considering automation are faced with a choice of choosing best-in-class models for each machine choice and facing the challenge of systems integration for inter-machine communication or settling for a one-supplier line solution, where systems integration may come as part of the package. Increasingly we are seeing equipment suppliers stating that systems integration between their machines is the best option, but there are risks to this approach.
Firstly not all of the machinery offered by one supplier will be the best-in-class solution. For example, a best-selling conveyor does not translate into that supplier also producing the best-selling flow wrapper. Compromising on the investment for automation of production lines that include multi-manufacturer equipment could mean the purchase of inferior machinery and ultimately reduced production quality and efficiency.
This is where the right systems integrator (or automation engineer) can play a role in ensuring that the Production Manager is able to freely choose the best machinery for the job secure in the knowledge that each piece of equipment can be connected to deliver one, world-class system.
Choosing the right Systems Integration Partner
When selecting your Systems Integration partner you should ensure that they have both depth and breadth of knowledge across the following key areas:
- Your sector and particular production environment
- Your particular equipment, models and any obligatory automation systems they will need to work with
- Their qualifications and experience in systems, enterprise architecture, software, programming, interface protocols and software development
- In general their experience and attitude should match your own working environment, an understanding of the setting and operational processes in which the automation must succeed is a real hidden benefit
- Experience working at your level of project and with an end-to-end approach e.g. maintenance and support packages
At FEG we have specialist automation engineers, with years of experience at the coalface of factory settings across automation, systems integration, data management, MES and telemetry. Understanding not only the technology and equipment, but how it will be used at real-life level is key to our project success for clients.
We offer a turnkey service, from feasibility to design, build, installation, testing, commissioning and ongoing support. We also offer comprehensive training packages from management to operator level.
We are comfortable with both new-build and retrofit solutions and can support and fit into your team wherever required throughout the full system life cycle.
Our inter-vendor experience and knowledge of various sectors, including manufacturing, automotive and food allows us to remain objective and honest in our dealings with clients, holding our programming skills for the industry in-house through our specialist automation engineers.