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2021: What to expect in automation

Jan. 18, 2021
Our new quarterly feature kicks off, where you get to ask the integrator community your digital questions.

Welcome to the first Automation Zone column of 2021! This year Plant Services is working with the Control System Integrators Association, or CSIA, to bring you a new quarterly feature, Ask An Integrator.

Automation Zone

This article is part of our monthly Automation Zone column. Read more from our monthly Automation Zone series.

Several factors – increasing levels of plant automation, the growth of online / remote condition monitoring programs, and the convergence of  IT and OT systems – have made a trusted integrator partner more important than ever for smooth plant operation and maintenance. In this quarterly feature, you get to ask the integrator community your pressing qustions about the digital transformation currently changing when, where, and how we work. Please email your questions directly to me, at [email protected], and I will relay them to our integrator panel.
For this inaugural column, I asked the integrators:

“What do you see for system integration looking ahead to 2021? Share some of the challenges in your particular industry this past year, and the solutions and services that are helping your team and end users manage during this time. What should end-users keep in mind if they are considering an upgrade or new solution in the year ahead? And how should they be adapting?

Karen Griffin, P.E., VP
Heath Stephens, P.E., engineering leader
Todd Majors, P.E., engineering leader
CSIA Certified Member Hargrove Controls + Automation
Between the parallel crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapse of oil prices, no year in recent history can compare to 2020 for companies serving the industrial sector. Looking into 2021 it appears we will continue to face a difficult business environment due to pandemic limitations and political uncertainty. The hope is that this will ease as the year progresses, and society will adjust to the new post pandemic normal.

We have recently been re-engaging with many clients who delayed projects until the latter half of 2020 or 2021. All indications are that demand for system integration services is strong and will continue well into 2021.

One of the primary challenges for 2020 was maintaining business continuity in a purely virtual environment. Our company is a strong believer in CSIA Best Practices, and has been developing, testing, and executing disaster recovery and business continuity planning for years.

When our country started going into lockdown, we had our entire team converted to a remote work environment over a weekend. We simply left the office on Friday, and started back up at home on Monday. One key thing here was that many of our clients weren’t ready to convert to a purely remote environment. Many capital projects were put on hold or delayed indefinitely as our clients shifted gears to focus on their ability to work remotely and adapt to changing and uncertain production forecasts.

Clients also began restricting access to their facilities to only essential personnel. Much effort was devoted to helping our clients understand how system integrators could continue to help them either convert to a remote work environment or keep essential projects on track despite limited site access.

One of the things that this last year highlights is the importance of remaining agile. Organizational agility is determined by both the people and the infrastructure. We were fortunate at Hargrove to already have an agile team ready to take on whatever challenges come their way. Just as importantly, we have invested heavily in our own infrastructure to enable our teammates to perform. This means strategic investments in remote access, vendor licensing and partnerships, even project tracking and billing systems. Whether our teammates are in the office, sheltered at home, or onsite, we have been able to provide consistent dependable service for our clients throughout this year.

Many of the new methods we have implemented in 2020 are here to stay, and end users will come to expect more, not less, from their system integrators going forward. Increased remote connectivity and other pandemic related execution changes will both raise the barrier to entry for some system integrators and enable competition from more distant system integrators. Everyone will have to adapt and be more efficient than before.

Jim Sellitto, VP of business bevelopment
CSIA Certified Member Martin CSI

Looking ahead to 2021, I see a need for automation. With the current global situation and the lack of workers, there is a strong need to automate and keep your current workers safe. If you’re considering an upgrade or new solution in the year ahead, get the system integrator involved early. Let them help you develop the solution/scope of work and be part of your team in presenting it to management.

I also think one of the biggest challenges manufacturers have right now is finding people to work. Try to find some jobs that are repetitive or dangerous and have a system integrator come up with an automated solution.

Bill Sellitto, VP of engineering
CSIA Certified Member Martin CSI

The 2021 outlook looks positive. All economic indicators look positive. We are getting more requests for budgetary quotes for the upcoming year than in previous years.

In the auto industry in our area, all of this year’s projects were canceled unless the ROI was within 3-6 months. We had to find work in other industries to keep busy. When the auto industry comes back and we start getting repeat work in the new industries / clients we worked with this year, we should be very busy. For the end user, we have been able to do a lot of budgetary estimates to help them with next year.

If you’re considering an upgrade or new solution in the year ahead, start your planning now and get your integrator involved so they know it’s coming. If you wait too long, there is a good chance that the integrator may be too busy to help you.

Stephen J. Malyszko, P.E., CEO
CSIA Certified Member Malisko Engineering

The fundamentals of the system integrator (SI) business in 2021 will remain unchanged: providing automation solutions to the manufacturing industry to safely achieve higher product yield, quality, output, and operational efficiency. But the mechanics, methods, and focus of providing these services to clients has made a noticeable shift due to the current pandemic.

SI’s had to adjust, and will most likely have to continue to adjust, their strategic plans, business model, business development, client interactions, project teaming, internal operations, and delivery of site support and services due to travel restrictions, social distancing, and general lockdown restrictions. In numerous cases clients, likewise, have also restricted their own capital and operational expenses in response to the pandemic, thus having a disruptive trickle-down effect with the SI community.

SI’s must re-think and re-tool much of their approach to addressing the needs of their clients under the “new normal” so the SI can continue to provide the quality automation services their clients have grown to depend on. Virtual client meetings, virtual team collaboration, and even safe remote start-up and commissioning support have been tools applied during the pandemic.

Technologically speaking, 2021 will continue to see an emphasis on digital transformation and IIoT. SI’s will need to provide guidance on the client’s plant-wide networks to ensure robustness, security, and sufficient bandwidth to handle the many connection points needed to have a comprehensive data and information platform to leverage the advantages of each client’s initiative for their digital transformation. SI’s also will need to expand their skill set to combine their traditional expertise of controls and visualization with sound physical and logical design and deployment of secure plant-wide networks complimentary to the client’s corporate network structure.

Clients should seek out and embrace as their digital transformation partner SI’s who have skills and experience at the “automation level,” “network level,” and “information analysis” level. Any manufacturing system upgrade or new solution in 2021 should consider these three sectors to increase the probability of success and effective results in implementing a client’s digital transformation strategy.

George Toldy, business development manager
CSIA Certified Member AMT

In 2021, we will be seeing a much more active approach to automation. COVID has really exposed weaknesses in our supply chains, ranging from manufacturing to distribution. With that said, we expect to see a fairly large spike in automation business from manufacturing, food processing, palletizing, material handling, robotic welding, and assembly in 2021. We will also be seeing an increased call for collaborative robots to work alongside employees to help companies stay competitive and operational, should we find ourselves in another pandemic down the road.

I think the biggest challenge in our industry was managing the COVID-related pipeline, as a significant amount of work was transferred to 2021 and, hence, the workload for 2021 will require increased resources from which to draw on. In addition, manufactured goods were also difficult to access due to supply chain interruptions. With the limited travel bans as it relates to equipment brought in from abroad, many companies were not able to send in their team of installation or programing engineers.

With that in mind, AMT Service has teams of support engineers who were dispatched and became very busy as they stepped in and helped many customers implement new automation equipment. This group is super familiar with the automotive protocol and specifications, and jumped in on a number of big and small automotive projects.

AMT has also seen an increase in the use of its advance engineering group, helping large companies and organizations plan automation for future plants. This is a resource that most automation integrators don’t offer but certainly goes a long way when planning for the future.

Customers seeking upgrades or new solutions should likely plan with the end in mind, and not just focus on just a small section to automate just for sake of automating. It’s always better to start with the ideal in mind and then back into an automation solution that is closest to the ideal. This will provide better flow and keep things from being too choppy on the plant floor.

Secondly, automation systems should be planned and designed with offsite support in mind. With wire and wireless connection devices or LAN devices, companies can leverage current IT infrastructure on the shop floor; however, planning will need to take place as most companies have firewalls that can make remote access difficult. In large organizations, developing work-arounds can take months or years; therefore, this also needs to be part of the automation planning process.

Lastly, we are all busy, and the old saying is that a five-year plan is a long time from now, but time always passes quickly and catches us off guard in terms of how fast it gets here. The sooner we start the planning, the better, as there are always challenges and unknowns; but once these are defined, they can typically be easily addressed and put your company in a position to win.

Steve McLaren, business development manager
CSIA Certified Member AMT

Looking ahead to 2021 I see an increase in automation requests due to social distance requirements and the lack of personnel willing to work in some of these none-automated companies/jobs.

In terms of industry challenges, ROI used to be based on a return on removing operators from a process; however, now a shortage of operators is pushing automation, so systems are being approved even with the same head count for a job or function. For 2021, users should keep in mind having an available workforce to support automation, including internal support staff and electrical / mechanical expertise, and should ask themselves if their teams can support the level of automation being installed.

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