For as long as there have been industrial systems, systems integrators have stepped into the complex space between ever-evolving technology and the unique circumstances and requirements of system users as they vary across plants, processes, and performance goals.
The very fact of continuous technological advancement however raises questions as to the ongoing role of systems integrators in the modern era. For example, how will the increasing prevalence, ease of use, and intelligence of automation technologies impact the breadth and type of service that will be required of systems integrators going forward?
We’ll be exploring these and other questions in this two-part series on the role of systems integrators in the future of industrial automation.
The who and what of systems integrators
In short, systems integrators take all of the pieces of the technological puzzle of an operation and ensure that they can interact with each other and work together to produce the desired result with optimal productivity and minimal downtime or loss.
Systems integrators straddle multiple disciplines ranging from the technological complexities of mechanical and electrical systems and myriad software applications to the human complexities of working with users to establish prioritized goals, optimize systems operations, and mitigate risk and inefficiency. This requires an extraordinary versatility both in fluency with a vast range of hardware, software, and network security components as they apply to diverse industries, and in the capacity to troubleshoot and envision the successful implementation of customized solutions.
The challenges facing systems integrators
Not surprisingly, the complex task of systems integration carries with it some inherent challenges. Some of the most common include:
- The continuing prevalence of monolithic systems.
Monolithic systems are those in which parts that perform separate functions are interwoven so that multiple functions are linked to each other by virtue of the software’s architecture. Many monolithic systems are legacy systems whose interconnected functionality has become indispensable for business operations. This presents systems integrators with a challenge in terms of engineering the integration of monolithic systems with other components of the organization’s technological ecosystem.
- Making data accessible enterprise-wide.
While the greatest challenge of a systems integrator may be creating a custom solution to integrate the disparate components of an organization’s systems, there is another challenge which, if successfully managed, can significantly increase productivity and the seamless flow of business operations. This is the challenge of establishing a common approach to data across departments including standardized language to facilitate ease of communication and ability to leverage data. While this endeavor requires the cooperation and coordination of individuals and teams across the organization, if a common approach can be established at the integration level the entire enterprise reaps the benefits of a consistent understanding of data.
- Bridging the gap to cloud-based systems.
Systems integrator have multiple tools at their disposal to facilitate integration in the most expedient way possible, but a particular challenge for today’s systems integrator is finding the right tool to bridge a given organization’s gap between on-site and cloud-based applications. While cloud-based applications are the way of the future, for various reasons organizations may still need tools that allow for hybrid integration. These reasons may include the presence of legacy systems upon which the organization is still heavily dependent, or concerns about regulatory compliance and cybersecurity. Whatever the reason, systems integrators are faced with the challenge of hybrid integrations that connect existing systems with newer cloud-based applications.
- Adopting an agile approach to development and delivery.
The unprecedented rate at which technology is evolving has rendered the traditional waterfall or linear, sequential development methodology all but ineffectual. As soon as the systems integration solution is crafted, a new need arises from the ever-changing technological and industrial landscape. The places systems integrators in the position of needing to adopt an agile approach to integration solutions which focuses on cyclical iterations allowing for quick adaptation as new needs and challenges present themselves.
The future of systems integrators
Considering the complexity of the role of systems integrators which multiplies exponentially as technology evolves and the challenges they face in maintaining fluency in a staggering array of diverse systems components—and then applying that expertise to create unique solutions for each organization—a question comes to the fore. With the advent of smart factories, AI, and intelligent automation, is the role of the systems integrator one that will continue to provide a compelling return on investment?
In our next article, we’ll take an in-depth look at what the changing world means for systems integrators, how the role may find itself evolving to maintain and even grow relevance, and how organizations might continue to reap the benefits of systems integration in the future.