José Rivera is the CEO of the Control System Integrators Association, and has been working with the CSIA members on the role of the system integrator in digital transformation. José is focused on strategy and business development, and has a deep understanding of industrial markets and technology, as well as business-to-business marketing and sales. Plant Services editor in chief Thomas Wilk recently spoke with José about the people, places, and work that system integrators provide.
PS: Well, and this is a great follow-up to our meeting last year at the Rockwell Automation Fair event of 2021. You and I had the chance for the first time in a couple of years to get together in person and talk shop, and just catch up.
JR: Yes, that's true. I remember it was my first business flight since the start of the pandemic. It was also very interesting to see how trade shows were coming back to life. This was my second trade show. But it was great to catch up with people in person. This is part of our community, and it was great catching up with you, Tom. It had been a long time and I remember comparing notes about how we handle the pandemic personally and at home.
PS: And meeting in our usual Starbucks down there near the George R. Brown Center in Houston. It feels like this year, finally, we're on the cusp of a lot of professional events getting back into their regular cycles, especially in May and June. For those listening, we're here to talk about one in particular. It's the CSIA Executive Conference that's going to be held this year in Denver, Colorado from June 27-30.
José, this year's theme is “The Future Of Work”. That's a topic which a lot of CSIA members have written about and shared information through Plant Services. We often get contributors from the CSIA members writing articles and column-length pieces for us. Could you give us a preview of the event, maybe start with talking about why the theme of The Future Of Work was the theme that was chosen?
JR: Sure, and for us, selecting The Future Of Work as a theme came very natural because we have been going through a dramatic global transformation over a relatively short period of time. It goes well beyond system integrators and the automation communities, and we're not done yet, right? And so, how do you put all these things together and distill it down and support it through a conference? That's what I think we were trying or are trying to do.
We have supported this theme with three tracks. The first one is people or the who, and in our case, it is about the talent that works for the system integrators and the one that they want to attract. This has always been a challenge for system integrators and the Great Resignation combined with a search in demand for system integrator services has made this worse. System integrators are being very creative in the way they're addressing this, and I'm sure that we will end up with new forms of working engagements.
Then second track is about the where, or where work takes place. And it's not just about the office versus home. It is about the redefinition of what the workplace--thus the office--is supposed to provide. At the start of the pandemic, when people were making remote work viable, some gained a better appreciation of the workplace, but in a redefined way. So everybody's now trying to come up with what does hybrid work mean? And everybody's coming with their unique solutions, which is perfect.
We at CSIA conducted a survey a year ago, and we asked about where you see yourself working. It was very interesting to see how the younger generations were the ones who wanted to go back to the office. To me, that was counterintuitive, because these are the generations that are very comfortable working remotely, but they need the social element. They need the mentoring. And the best way of doing that is by being in the office, maybe not every single day, but a certain number of days.
And the other thing that I would say about the work taking place is that system integrators had to figure out how to deliver some of the work remotely. Some system integrators had SATs, which stands for site acceptance testing, to deliver their projects and complete them. But several manufacturers or many manufacturers were not allowing non-employees to their sites. So how do you complete your project? They had to find and workaround, but also develop tools that allowed them to deploy their solutions without having to touch their feet on the manufacturer's site.
And the last track is about the deliverables by the system integrators, so the what. It's the scope of work that system integrators have been providing. It has been growing over the years, right? So, 20 years ago, all system integrators were doing was PLC programming and control panel assembly. And today, the diversity is so big that there are some system integrators that don't touch the hardware. They're just working at the software level, MES, etc., and it's fascinating to see that diversity. I think that now with this pandemic and digital transformation also, the role of the system integrator as a consultant coming in earlier in the projects is going to be a growing trend.
PS: That's something I completely agree with, José, and I think we touched on it last year when we spoke in Houston. There's a definite trend towards maintenance and reliability teams – the primary audience for Plant Services. They're having trouble back-filling old positions, positions where they've had retirements, and so, at the moment at least, they're partnering out a lot more often either with OEMs or OEMs and their partners, which would include the integrator community. And to get what these teams need to get done at work, it is going to take a lot more collaboration earlier in the project. You simply can't bolt on the integration aspect. It's got to be thought through at the point of defining project goals.
JR: Yes, yes, yes, and some of these manufacturing sites are in remote locations. If you're trying to attract talent, young talent, normally younger people want to live in the more urban areas, right? And so, how can you attract these resources? So, if we talk, let's say, remote work, and now you allow this individual to work a certain number of days remotely, that I think increases the probability of you being able to attract these resources.
But one thing that I would say about the maintenance, the reliability, and the operation workers, I mean, when they went through the pandemic, a lot of them didn't have the option of working remotely, right? These were positions that demanded that you be there and they required a lot of sacrifice from these workers.
They had to deal not just with the Great Resignation, but they also had to deal with coworkers who got sick and now suddenly had to quarantine, so reduced staff. Then there were all these concerns about spread of the virus, particularly at the very beginning of the pandemic. What I have heard is that from the manufacturer site, in the past, a lot of the projects were justified just from a financial perspective. And now, resiliency is one of the elements of the equation. And because we have the Great Resignation too, what you are then having are many more projects that are driving a lot of the system integrator business that try to reduce the worker concentration on the manufacturing flow and help deal with this Great Resignation problem.
I think that this is creating opportunities within your audience because they can become the experts in these new tools. They can become the go-to resources for them, such that the work of the reduced set of people that are in the factory becomes much more efficient. If, for example, you're deploying this predictive maintenance type of tools, right? When you are scheduling your maintenance, your shutdowns, it's not unscheduled. It is one where you have programmed.
Listen to the entire interview
And in these days where worker availability, etc., is limited, you don't want to mess it up. You don't want to be the one that suddenly has workers sitting because this machine broke down. You want that to be a scheduled shutdown, right? So, more than ever, these tools that are predictive and not reactive. These tools have existed, and I think the pandemic is now providing impetus for them to be deployed more widely.
PS: Yeah. That's an interesting way to map out some of the ways that work will be changing also for maintenance and reliability workers, while acknowledging, as you said, the fact that a lot of these workers, including the operators, simply did not have a choice on whether or not to show up. I can remember two years ago, when all this started, I was talking to technicians who were infrared experts, and they were being asked to take their infrared cameras and not point them at the machine so much, but stand at the front gate and point them at people's foreheads on the way in to check and see if they were showing symptoms of the virus.
JR: Well, it's about being flexible, right?
PS: Right, right. And that's two years on, I think there are a lot of plants that have sort of cracked the code on how to deal with new technologies at the gate where you wouldn't have a person standing there with the camera. We still do hear people wrestling with issues of planning and scheduling the work because of the challenge of not knowing if someone will be quarantined to say for one week or two weeks due to the virus. And as you said, the virus is a lot less of a stigma than it used to be, but it is still a fact of life. So that efficiency is key for these workers.
PS: You referenced the kind of projects that our audiences have been working on and that they work with the integrator community on, specifically remote monitoring systems and networks to help people either monitor their systems from home, monitor the condition of their assets from home, or at least from a remote location. Now that we're learning more each day how to live with and manage the virus, do you see these projects continuing? Or do you also see the projects diversifying a little bit from how to keep people away from the plants, to different projects which would involve people being more on-site at the plant again?
JR: I think this trend will not only continue, I think it will accelerate. The deployment of remote monitoring systems and networks increases resiliency for the plant. And what we're going through right now, it's a crazy world. And we were talking about the pandemic, but we have not mentioned the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, right? And this has introduced so much uncertainty in our world and the need for flexibility and resiliency, right? We're not done with the pandemic and we now have all these implications of this war, so I think that if you're a manufacturer and you can increase your resiliency (and you can and by deploying the systems that have been around), you’re going to go further.
PS: Yeah. And that's not only has the supply chain situation not been overcome yet, but as you say, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is now complicating energy policies and energy plans. I think plant teams are going to need a lot more integration work and more and more data to understand, as you said, how do you adjust to these changing conditions? How do you become more resilient?
JR: Yes, and this is why everybody's still so tired from all this changing around, because in the past things were a little more predictable, right? We were able to deploy things like just-in-time inventories or elimination of inventories were just in time and lean initiatives. All of that was great because it reduced cost. Now that version has been turned around, right? And maybe now having a little bit of extra inventory, as long as it's the right one, it's an advantage. So it has had a lot of impact, what we are going through right now in our world.
PS: Yeah. And it sounds like the CSIA Executive Conference is going to cover all those different aspects of current events quite thoroughly and help integrators understand the challenges they're about to navigate.
JR: Yep. And back to the big challenges, like supply chain, huge challenge, it remains. In the case of the automotive industry, Ukraine was a supplier of some components, and so even at that level, you have that, but automotive has been forced to shut down some plants because of the lack of key microelectronics, right? That was unrelated to this war, but it's of the type of supply chain disruptions. I think this will continue and we will have to be flexible. Flexible is going to be a very key term.
The other thing that I think are part of the big issues impacting our industry landscape today, is inflation. If you are living through inflation now, you have not lived through it in decades. And a lot of people don't know how to deal with it, don't know how to manage it, which is very different if you come from an emerging economy, where high inflation is the normal environment and folks there have figured out a way to do it. That will be another challenge for us as a mature economy.
The Great Resignation, we talked about that. That is a big one, and these are three immediate big issues. There are all these ones in the background that are the ones that have not gone away. These are much longer trends like addressing climate change, addressing overpopulation, all these different things, there's still on the table, It's going to be a challenging few set of years ahead of us.
PS: Well, and that's one of the best aspects I think of the CSIA Executive Conference is that it's as much of a business meeting as it is a technology meeting. At the conference I was able to attend, there was a lot of discussion on how do you manage a business and endure so many challenges?
JR: Absolutely true, and we tried to bring it down to the realities of the system integrator. For example, on the topic of inflation, because this has been going on exactly at the time when I was at the Rockwell Automation Fair. I came in one day late because I was the host of one of our virtual events, and we have one law firm that advises our members, and they were providing some very practical advice about what to include in their terms and conditions and how to deal with this topic of inflation. Because today, if you're a system integrator and you buy some components, the price is actually the price that you end up paying when the product arrives, and that is totally out of your control. These are things that are dramatic, and we try to provide advice to our members to try to cope with the situation and very specific to their businesses.
And the other thing that I would say about the conference, it's great that you have been at so many of our events, but a lot of our system integrators are very happy to share. We have this saying, “share one idea and take 10 good ideas with you,” that is one of our slogans for the conference. I've seen that in action over the seven years that I've been with CSIA, so it's totally true that this takes place. When you are a system integrator, you value the input from other peers and you deploy them in your company when you get back to work.
PS: For those of you who are listening to this podcast, that's a very important point, which is that again, if your immediate team doesn't have the knowledge or is unfamiliar with contracting language, to understand what some of the requirements are to get projects done, lean toward a CSIA member for your integration needs. That’s the team that's going to have the knowledge and the language and the dexterity to help you as you move through these partnerships.
José, thank you so much for being here today. One last word about the conference, it's going to take place June 27-30 in Denver, Colorado. And, José, do I have the website, right? People can go to www.controlsys.org to find out more information?
JR: Yes. At the banner, we have a direct link to the conference. And yes, it's going to be in beautiful Colorado. I was there just a few weeks ago and it's beautiful, can’t wait for it. Thank you, great talking to you.