Outsource your engineering?

Is executing the design, startup, and support for your control, instrumentation, and electrical systems with internal resources always the right approach? Find out in this month’s installment of Machine Builder Mojo.

Dan Hebert, PEBy Dan Hebert, PE, Senior Technical Editor

MOST INDUSTRIAL machine, process skid, and robot builders have an in-house staff of qualified automation professionals. This group handles the design, startup, and support for their control, instrumentation, and electrical systems.

Is executing these tasks with internal resources always the right approach? Is there sometimes a need to turn to outside resources such as system integrators? We asked these questions of both machine builders and system integrators, and their responses form the basis of this and next month’s column.

This month we’ll pass along the responses of machine builders. It’s no coincidence that the OEM Insight column, “We Don’t Use System Integrators” on page 82 is a view of this issue from a machine builder’s perspective. Next month, I’ll examine input from system integrators, and OEM Insight will present the point of view of a system integrator.

Machine builders produce standard machines, but often with varying levels of custom features. Customization depends on the application and on customer requirements and can range from minimal to extensive. Since no one knows your machines better than you, when your customer wants a standard machine with little or no customization, outside help usually isn’t needed.

“We very rarely use system integrators,” says Scott Bivens, electrical engineering manager for Packaging Technologies. Packaging Technologies makes packaging, processing, and filling machinery for the food, meat, dairy, pharmaceutical, explosive, cosmetic, aerosol, and other commercial and consumer product industries. “We spent nearly the same time bringing the integrator up to speed on our equipment and managing their activities as if we did the work ourselves,” adds Bivens.

A second builder echoes this sentiment. “We don’t use outside system integration and automation service providers,” states Chris Cote, manager, R&D electrical engineering at Goss International Americas. Goss makes newspaper and commercial press systems, as well as mailroom and post-press equipment.

“We have the needed engineering expertise and resources in-house,” adds Cote. “It would be difficult to bring a third party up to speed. Further, after they master that learning curve and become productive, there is a risk that this new resource might become a competitor.”

Meanwhile, RRR Development makes manufacturing equipment for the rubber, steel, and plastics industry. “Many system integrators understand the technology, but don’t have an adequate grasp of our process,” says Robert Irwin, vice president of sales and engineering at RRR Development. “Having our own integration team gives us continuity for design, build, assembly, pre-ship test, and commissioning.”

Of course, some customers and applications might require such a high degree of customization that outside engineering resources can be of great assistance. “We use system integrators for one-of-a-kind or specialty systems and add on features,” says Ismail Kirmaci, electrical engineering manager for Orthodyne Electronics. Orthodyne makes ultrasonic wire bonders for customers in the semiconductor and microelectronics industries.

It’s a similar deal with Battenfeld Gloucester Engineering, builder of blown film, cast film, foam systems, sheet extruders, and extrusion coating systems for plastic industry applications. It uses system integrators when it doesn’t have the internal resources available, “but it also can be expertise-related,” reminds Paul Brancaleone, engineering manager of software and controls for Battenfeld. “We’re in the custom equipment business and sometimes a customer insists on specific vendor’s controls or HMIs. These can be products that we haven’t used before. If it’s a one-off deal, the training and resource drain with respect to our internal staff doesn’t make sense.”

Because of tight delivery schedules, there usually isn't enough time for mechanical design to become solid prior to starting the controls work. Do you agree with this?
After-sales support: If we do the integration work ourselves, we're better prpared to help our customer. We've been burned a couple of times by integrators that failed to step up after the job was shipped. Has this ever happened to you?
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