Digital Integration Services Provider Strategies for Manufacturing

By Dick Hill

ARC Report Abstract

Executive Overview

Years ago, ARC Advisory Group identified a strong trend for manufacturers to engage with a main automation contractor (MAC) to supply, coordinate, and/or manage all automation-related aspects of a major capital project.  Most owner-operators no longer have large in-house engineering departments to manage these major projects.  Furthermore, the trend toward digital transformation in industry makes it even more challenging for owner-operators to manage the extensive network of suppliers, contractors, and subcontractors needed for large projects.  The scope of supply now also extends to the digital integration and application deployment services that are increasingly important to achieve maximum business value over the operational lifecycle.

The increased need for digital integration of operation technology (OT) systems with information technology (IT) systems has left manufacturers with a growing need to find partners that can provide expertise that extends from project execution and into the lifecycle of the plant.  Thus, the major project-focused MAC requirement has evolved to also encompass ongoing digital integration services.  These services typically extend beyond the traditional plant-floor automation domain and across the lifecycle of the manufacturing assets.

The scope of what is considered automation has also expanded.  In today’s digital information-driven manufacturing environment, it’s essential for more information processing to be performed close to the plant floor or in devices, machines, or other equipment at the network edge.  More than ever, appropriate production and business data must flow smoothly and securely between production and business systems to support digitally enabled business processes and advanced analytics, increase the level of automation, and empower employees to make better, more timely decisions.  Plant instrumentation and automation systems play a key role in information-driven manufacturing.  In addition to helping ensure safe and secure operations, they also generate the vast majority of real-time operational and asset data consumed by higher level systems, such as manufacturing execution systems (MES) and enterprise resource planning systems (ERP).   

Not only do industrial organizations need help to design, engineer, and implement all automation-related applications, systems, and devices (control systems, safety systems, field instrumentation, etc.); they also need to ensure that these are integrated safely and securely and supported by the appropriate services. While this is no small task, new IT-enabled tools and technologies are emerging that can help. 

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is also beginning to play an important role as more technology suppliers provide equipment with intelligence that can be accessed through the internet and more IIoT-enabled applications are implemented at the edge to support new solutions and business models.

The standardized, interoperable modules envisioned by the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF), a forum of The Open Group, could make the application and integration task much easier.  OPA also holds the promise to bring forth a much wider range of possible applications and solutions.  But while the interoperable, vendor-agnostic nature of these modules offers exciting new possibilities, it also introduces some significant support questions.  With devices and applications coming from multiple vendors, who is going to take responsibility for implementing and supporting the overall solution?

All in all, there’s a strong value proposition associated with deploying new digital transformation technologies in today’s process and discrete manufacturing plants alike and across industry and infrastructure.  But this introduces the need for expertise in IT-centric technologies that is in short supply in most industrial organizations, even many larger global enterprises.  Also, it’s important for owner-operators to remember that they need services that extend well beyond the project phase to not only provide support but also to help manage the strategic objectives across the entire lifecycle.  This would require a special breed of integration services provider.

Today’s Owner-operators Have More Digital Integration Options

Many owner-operators no longer have the extensive automation and engineering departments they once had.  Managing large and complex projects can be overwhelming.  Historically, the full-line automation suppliers often served as the main automation contractor (MAC), providing their own instrumentation, systems, and associated services.  As a wider range of operational technologies (OT) became required, it became increasingly more difficult to acquire all the products, including the necessary integration tools from a single supplier.  Plus, the proprietary nature of most suppliers’ technology, often made it difficult for them to assume total project responsibility.

As a result, over time, engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contractors and some larger system integrators (SIs) become more involved with their clients, serving as the system integration services provider, or (multi-vendor) MAC for major projects.  Some system integrators and automation engineering firms have even formalized these offerings to become digital integration services providers.  This works well with many end users, providing them with more choices as to how best to implement a modern automation project.

Operational Technology Integration Becoming More Challenging

More end users are demanding that the integration services provider have extensive experience in their specific vertical industry.  Each industry has unique applications, often requiring a unique set of technologies.  The integration services provider team that can successfully implement OT for a project in an oil refinery is not the same team that could do so in a pulp or paper mill or power generating plant. 

In addition to demanding specific industry domain knowledge, owner-operators also insist on strong local services content from local service providers that will support their integrated systems through the plant’s operating life.  End users in developing nations typically insist on a significant amount of local project content (usually in the form of project services) in the implementation phase of the project to help ensure strong local support once the implementation is complete.  For an integration services provider to be successful, it should form a solid, experienced team, with some members remaining in place to support end users during the operating life of their systems.

Typically, the integration services provider’s team includes industry experts as well as software and control engineers from a global center of excellence (CoE).  More often, the team needs networking and system integration skills that bridge across many OT and IT systems.  In addition to these global CoE experts, end users want local service providers included on the project implementation team, since this early project experience ensures deep knowledge in the support people once the project has started up and the personnel from the global CoE have moved on to other projects. 

Broadened Automation Scope Requires Integrated Approach

With IT/OT convergence and digital transformation, open and interoperable digital technologies and digitally enabled approaches, such as IIoT, advanced analytics, machine learning, edge computing, 4G/5G wireless, and the Cloud, are becoming integral to previously proprietary automation system architectures.  This has introduced a completely new set of implementation and support issues over the life of the plant.  Automation has moved from its focus on control and instrumentation to include higher-level applications; increasing the expertise required for configuration, commissioning, integration, and support.

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Recognizing that their customers need an expanded set of engineering and integration services, many technology suppliers and project service providers are preparing for this new digital transformation-driven trend, which call for people, processes, and technology to operate together flawlessly. 

Managing Complexity While Reducing Risk

The trend to use pilot projects to provide proofs of concept and identify business benefits of digital transformation brings a new level of commitment to the role of the integration services provider.  It also increases the overall value that an integration services provider can deliver.  Today, the integration services provider must serve an even larger consulting role to help each organization manage its own schedules and cost risks.  The integration services provider must be able to provide global clients with a standardized solution anywhere in the world.  This requires dynamic collaboration tools and a flexible workforce. 

Additional issues include operational costs, lifecycle costs, and plant performance.  For the owner-operator, the project phase is only the be-ginning.  Decisions made in the early stages of the project have an impact throughout the plant lifecycle.  Data captured during plant construction must be transferred seamlessly through the operational phase.  Within the scope of its projects, the integration services provider often provides maintenance and other after-market services beyond the startup phase, which can also reduce risks and operational costs in the long run.

Relying on an integration services provider as a single point of responsibility to coordinate efforts among multiple suppliers and subcontractors can reduce risk, cost, and startup times while increasing precision.  Using an integration services provider as a single point of responsibility for integration also increases design reliability and should result in fewer changes in project design during the lifecycle of the project.   

Early Digital Integration Services Provider Involvement Is Beneficial

Early involvement by an integration services provider can have a big impact on the successful rollout of digital transformation-related technology and solutions.  The communication channel that an integration services provider can establish between the often-complicated collection of automation suppliers, system integrators, EPCs, and the end user often results in fewer design changes during the initial project and on-going operations lifecycle.  Changes made in later phases of the project cost the owner-operator far more than those made in the earlier phases.  Early involvement by the digital integration services provider can help ensure that fewer changes are made during project execution.  This is due to a smoother transition between the project’s specification and configuration phases. 

Front-end engineering and design (FEED) is an essential early step in most major projects.  FEED, however, is also an appropriate concept for applying digital transformation technology over the lifecycle of the facility.  Involving the integration services provider early can have a big impact and add value, since the FEED process, in conjunction with consulting, is often a critical factor in determining project success and derived benefits for the owner-operator.  Successful implementation of technologies such as wireless field device integration, fieldbus, dynamic optimization, and real-time performance management rely on good engineering and design effort, as well as a seamless transition from engineering and design to implementation, operations, maintenance, and the rest of the plant lifecycle.  Deploying emerging technologies, such as IIoT, advanced analytics, machine learning, edge computing, 4G/5G wireless, and the Cloud, over the plant lifecycle can be greatly improved with an integration services provider as a lifecycle partner.

Reduced Complexity – Shorter Time to Production

The digital integration services provider approach can provide economic advantage to owner-operators in three key areas: reduced coordination effort, reduced commissioning time, and reduced customization costs. Cumulatively, these result in reduced installed cost and reduced overall cost of ownership.  As a single source of integration responsibility, the integration services provider must be able to work with multiple technology and service suppliers as well as provide tight coordination with the owner-operator.  Single point of ownership for the design effort typically results in lower engineering costs and helps eliminate another enormous source of cost: custom integration of disparate applications, which adds significant cost and risk to a project.

With improved engineering and reduced custom integration, commissioning and startup are achieved much faster, with smoother handover from the project phase to operations.  The accrued knowledge achieved in design and installation drives the plant operational strategy.  When a digital integration services provider transitions from a project participant to a collaborative lifecycle partner, it can bring all the knowledge it has captured during the project to help the owner-operator achieve operational excellence.

Emphasis on Teamwork

One of the increasingly difficult issues surrounding both major automation projects and on-going digital transformation technology rollout is coordinating schedules between all participants.  Bringing the integration services provider into the plan after the owner-operator has agreed internally upon the scope could lead to many problems, including added cost and delays.  The owner-operator, integration services provider, technology and systems supplier, EPC contractor, and other parties involved must agree upon and understand the objectives, responsibilities, and commitments expected from each party. 

In today’s increasingly complex operations, it’s becoming essential to have an integration services provider as a partner that is responsible for keeping on top of the latest available technologies and best practices.

A plan must also be in place to account for the inevitable project changes.   Many integration services providers have either developed or acquired change management tools and integrated these into their planning/scheduling functions.  Change management tools help mitigate the risk of falling behind schedule, as changes are well documented and incorporated into the schedule and all parties are fully aware of the changes and their impact and implications on the project.

Even though the integration services provider is the single point of responsibility for all major project-related issues, the owner-operator must maintain oversight, audit the process continuously, and be prepared to intervene if differences should arise between the integration services provider and other technology and service providers engaged in the project.  The owner-operator must insist on the collective relationship between all suppliers involved in the project.  Over the project and beyond this would become a mutually beneficial partnership.

Future Evolution of MAC to Digital Integration Services Provider

The concept of a main automation contractor is to have a single entity with the primary role to design, engineer, and deliver a well-integrated, automation-based collection of data-intensive technologies.  This is necessary to help ensure that the operational systems contribute to the successful operation of the plant.  The need for tightly integrated control systems and manufacturing operations management software is well recognized, since it provides the real-time response needed to meet the needs of manufacturers and other industrial organizations.  In addition, other technologies, applications, and systems that have not previously been considered within the MAC scope, have recently been included in the growing requirements list for integrated solutions.

The increased need for digital integration of operation technology (OT) systems with information technology (IT) systems has left manufacturers with a growing need to find partners that can provide needed expertise from project execution and into the lifecycle of the plant.  The major project-focused MAC requirement has evolved to the additional operations lifecycle need for a digital integration services provider.

Future Scope Will Need to Accommodate Emerging Technologies

If ultimately realized, the standardized, interoperable modules envisioned by the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF) could simplify the application and integration of automation and associated technology.  Workflow improvements that eliminate repetitive tasks and multiple ways to perform the same tasks could also help.  For now, rather than waiting for OPAF to be completed, the value proposition for pursuing digital transformation is strong.

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is also expanding to provide more options for connecting devices, data, and applications.  With the addition of analytics and machine learning to the edge of field devices and plant equipment, more intelligent information is now available directly from equipment.  In addition to field devices, this includes rotating equipment such as compressors and pumps.  Even mobile equipment, such as haul trucks in the mining industry, now provide valuable load and location information to the systems awaiting their cargo.  IIoT also offers significant potential to help improve worker safety by tracking the location of all personnel in the plant.


Table of Contents

  • Executive Overview
  • Today’s Owner-operators Have More Digital Integration Options
  • Reduced Complexity – Shorter Time to Production
  • Flawless Operation Is the Goal
  • Recommendations


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