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Picking the right systems integrator

12 March 2017

Paul Wilkinson offers advice on de-risking the systems integrator selection process. 

In the UK there are many companies specialising in delivering automation projects. Some design and provide the technology, components or sub systems, while others provide the full turnkey applications. Then there are system integrators, who specialise in crafting solutions, overseeing the engineering of automated systems and ensuring that all the elements on a manufacturing or packing line work harmoniously together to optimise productivity, reduce waste and address rising manufacturing labour costs.

The well-publicised engineering skills shortage has resulted in fewer companies employing skilled in-house engineering experts, so many manufacturers value being able to access external technical and engineering assistance that these specialists can supply. 

High-level engineering, automation, operational, communication and IT skills are all necessary, but this needs to be balanced with sector specific experience too. There is often tremendous value to be gained from working with companies that have refined their skills by taking on complex and bespoke projects and have a track record of integrating disparate automation platforms. Robotic devises are commonplace today and anyone can buy a robot arm. Yet, it is the engineering knowledge and ability to design the best possible solution for each application that will result in the most cost-effective, long-lasting, reliable and trouble-free solution.

To help craft the best solution, employ a well-resourced engineering and project design team which can provide a combination of engineering expertise and deep sector knowledge. It might sound obvious, but make sure you select a system integrator that you feel comfortable collaborating freely with, and one which is happy to hold regular status meetings and that will advise you on the elements that fall outside of your realm of expertise. 

Keeping up
The pace of innovation – coupled with customer demand for innovative products –is accelerating. System integrators need to have a wide breadth of experience from different industries, which will enable them to share best practice from one application to another. Ideally, look for an integrator that will present several automation options for consideration at the early project stages, with different benefits, features and cost implications. 

Don’t allow yourself to get saddled with an overly complex or expensive system as this might be less flexible in the long run. An emerging requirement is for multi-functional and flexible equipment that can easily be reconfigured to future product cycles. As well as optimising OEE and ROI, much of this equipment is now also compatible with future smart factory and Industry 4.0 trends.

Being able to see examples in operation – either at the integrators’ demonstration facility or at a local customer site, can also help in the decision-making process. 

Track record
It is important to consider the longevity of your prospective system integrator’s existing relationships and not just the quality of strategic partners they have. 

Finally, placing an order should just be the start of the support you receive from your integrator. Educational workshops, open days, regular site visits are more than just valuable extras. They they can help to boost workforce awareness about automation and the productivity benefits that can be realised so do make sure that these will be available to you. 
Paul Wilkinson is commercial & information systems manager at Pacepacker.


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