The ever-changing world of industrial systems—and the equally shifting landscape of their component parts—places systems integrators squarely at the busy intersection of technological development and unique user needs.
In our last article, we discussed the role of systems integrators in engineering productive connectivity between all of the disparate subsystems that make up an industrial or manufacturing system, ensuring that the hardware, software, and ancillary components can speak to each other and work together to achieve the operational goals for which they are intended.
We also touched on the particular challenges faced by systems integrators. Some of them have existed since industrial systems have existed, such as the intricacies of integrating monolithic systems. Others have taken on a new level of complexity as technology advances, such as the need to be fluent in an ever-widening range of applications and solutions.
But there are new challenges as well, and those ushered in by Industry 4.0 present more of an existential than an operational dilemma. The question must be asked: With the increasing adoption of AI, automation, robotics and cobotics, and smart factories, what is the role of systems integrators in the future of industry?
Reinventing systems integration
Some suggest that the ongoing relevance of systems integrators hinges on reinventing the role. They point to the capabilities—already evident in many areas—of AI to replace the custom solutions engineered by systems integrators with more generalized technologies that can leverage data to set themselves up.
Others point to the growing sophistication of robots and cobots which are simultaneously more flexible and user friendly than their predecessors that featured less simple user interfaces. Plug and play robots are increasingly available, reliable, versatile, and easy to deploy for a variety of applications. They are also in many cases a cost-effective option.
While at first glance these factors may seem to pose a threat to the role of systems integrators, there are two things that are certain about the advancement of technology: It is inevitable, and it begets opportunity for those open to adapting and reinventing.
What does reinventing the role of systems integrator look like? While there are assuredly different approaches and opinions, here are a few of the key ways this shift may take place:
- Leveraging expertise in the manufacturing process to help develop and implement AI-based, modular applications that directly address the challenges faced by various industries.
- Moving away from single-use, non-scalable systems solutions to managed services that emphasize shared, cloud-based platforms, collaboration, and connectivity.
- Partnering with complementary service providers to co-engineer scalable solutions they can offer as a service to differentiate them from other systems integrators.
Change and sustainability
The picture of reinvention painted above may well come to fruition in part or whole along with other changes, but it’s also important to remember that change, though inexorable, takes time.
AI has not replaced human-engineered and bespoke solutions with self-learning technologies, and a lot would have to happen in order for it to do so—not the least of which involves organizations ramping up their efforts towards universal digitalization and the widespread incorporation of technologies that support quick and easy data extraction.
Robots and cobots are still evolving, and we are a long way off from seeing every plant, facility, factory, and process rely on them with any degree of exclusivity.
In the meantime, systems integrators are still needed to fulfill those roles in more traditional ways, while making inroads into the kind of advancements and partnerships that will help them face the future as proactive innovators. The key, then, for systems integrators is to balance sustained support with the openness to change and grow in keeping with technology and the world it shapes.
The role of systems integrators is shifting and will undoubtedly continue to do so as we discover and implement new ways to reap the benefits of Industry 4.0. In order to continue to provide value and a solid ROI, systems integrators are also finding new ways to support industries in their current operations as well as in the move to embrace more advanced technologies.
This evolution will require a high degree of versatility, flexibility, and the capacity for envisioning new solutions, which is what systems integrators have been providing all along. The future of systems integration may look a little different than its past or present, but the role of systems integrators will maintain relevance as long as these core skills are needed in industrial systems operations.