We don't use system integrators

This is the first of a two-part discussion about the relationship between the controls professionals at machine builder companies and independent system integrators. Next month: an SI’s take on the relationship.

By Jeff Klinger, Chief Controls Engineer, Ingersoll Production Systems

What is the best way to augment your controls design capacity when the workload exceeds your availabe talent? That’s a question we face frequently. We primarily build very-specialized, one-of-a-kind, metalworking equipment for production of major vehicle powertrain components such as engine blocks, heads, and transmissions. We’re always creating new processes to produce these parts faster and more cost effectively for our customers.

Considering the very cyclical nature of our market and limited staff, you can understand why we often face manpower issues involving required skills or experience levels. We either are dealing with a large project that requires the whole group, or many smaller projects that still consume our available talent. In either case, more talent is needed to get the job done.

As a general rule, we don’t use outside system integrators on new projects. We augment our design staff, and bring design talent in-house to be part of our team.

Because of the uniqueness and dynamic nature of our machine designs, changes are just a way of life. Through many years of experience, I’ve found that trying to keep an outside design group abreast of changes in overall system requirements is a difficult task at best. There is no substitute for sitting down with the mechanical designer, and talking through his design when questions arise. Looking back at the few projects that were done with outside system integrators, I found that we spent nearly as much engineering time in management mode as if we’d done the work ourselves.

At the industrial OEM level, when we let go of the controls design for a system, we give away future market opportunity for that system. Because of the significant initial investment required, our machinery tends to be retooled many times over its lifetime. Retooling of existing machinery is a significant source of income in our industry, and having intimate in-house knowledge of the controls system is crucial to be able to respond quickly and economically to retool quotes and change requests.

From a service and maintenance perspective, in-house expertise of the controls design is paramount. When a customer has a machine down condition, we all know there’s nothing more important than to get that machine back into production as quickly as possible. Being able to walk down the hall to ask a question, or contact someone from your own company after hours or on the weekend, will provide a much faster response back to the customer.

Today, we rely on past relationships developed with sub-contract designers to augment our engineering manpower requirements. Because we’ve developed long-term relationships with these individuals and companies, they’re familiar with our machinery and design processes. This yields a very short learning curve when we need them to supplement our engineering team. My experience has shown that this approach has been the most cost-effective for us over the long haul for any given project.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I am against the use of system integrators. In our industry and others, system integrators have a definite role in the process, managing the controls interface to systems from many different suppliers or OEMs is a good example. Factory information systems and plant-wide control systems involve many players, and someone needs to have the final say to make sure all subsystem suppliers are using the same standards.

The inclination to send out a controls design can be very tempting, especially when I have a manpower shortage. However, that decision has a far-reaching effect beyond just relieving an immediate manpower shortage. You need to evaluate the entire life of the machine or program for such things as:

  • How will you deal with service issues?
  • Will you need to include the system integrator in any future retooling projects?
  • Are you creating future competition for your company?

We’ve decided to augment internal design capacity to meet manpower spikes and create an in-house expert first.

  About the Author
Jeff Klinger is chief controls engineer at machine builder Ingersoll Production Systems in Rockford, Ill. You can contact Jeff at jdk@ingersollprodsys.com.

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