According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, “system integration is the bringing together of the component subsystems into one system and ensuring that the subsystems function together as a system. In information technology, systems integration is the process of linking together different computing systems and software applications physically or functionally.”

Wikipedia goes on to say, “system integration is also about value-adding to the system, capabilities that are possible because of interactions between subsystems.”

In the case of manufacturing, system integration often is thought of as the linking together of specialized computer-based control systems, such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs), manufacturing monitoring software, and PC-based reporting systems.

Traditionally, the function of a manufacturing system integrator (SI) was to engineer, install, and configure systems that enabled automated, high-speed production of enough consistently good product that companies could meet their customer quantity and quality demands.

Therein lay the major value-add: enable companies to make enough product at acceptable quality levels in order to reduce scrap product and keep volume fulfillment high.

A new era of manufacturing

Things started to change in 2000. Due to a pronounced decline in product demand and a rise in offshore manufacturing competition, North American and Western European manufacturers expanded their methods and practices to include making the right products, at the right time, at the right cost.

Doing this “right stuff” requires companies to provide agile response to realâ€�time customer order updates and small order lots, continuous supply-chain coordination, and never-ending cost reductions in manufacturing processes, all the while complying with, and proving compliance to, governmental health, financial and environmental regulations.

These post-2000 competition-inhibiting constraints are more than business school platitudes. They are real, critical survival matters for companies that face stiff competition from low-cost manufacturing centers. Manufacturers in those countries compete largely on low cost of labor. This creates a decidedly non�level playing field for global manufacturers.

In response, operational excellence initiatives are being adopted on a broad scale at threatened manufacturing enterprises of all sizes. To give an idea of the size of the problem, industry analysts estimate global manufacturing companies will spend in excess of $10 billion per year (2007) to solve these problems, growing at a rate of 10 percent to 15 percent per year.

Just throwing money at these problems will not achieve the desired results, however. Successful achievement of sustained manufacturing operational improvement requires commitment from the entire organization, including top-level management. Initiatives, separately and in combination, that are being investigated and deployed include:

Lean manufacturing- a process management philosophy focused on the elimination of non-value-add steps in manufacturing procedures. Lean is derived mostly from the Toyota Production System, but also from other sources.

Six Sigma- a set of practices developed to systematically improve processes by eliminating defects. Six Sigma asserts that continuous efforts to reduce variation in process outputs is key to business success and that manufacturing and business processes can be measured, analyzed, improved and controlled.

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM)- TPM is a proactive methodology that aims to prevent any kind of slack before occurrence. Its motto is "zero error, zero work-related accident and zero loss."
One way to think of TPM is deterioration prevention and maintenance reduction - not just fixing machines when they break down. TPM also is referred to as "Total Productive Manufacturing" or "Total Process Management."

Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) - OEE is a measure comparing how well manufacturing equipment is running compared to the ideal plant. The resulting measurement is expressed as the ratio of the actual output of the equipment divided by the maximum possible output of the equipment under ideal conditions. The higher the OEE number, the better.

To meet this need, manufacturing software vendors have recently introduced products that enable rapid identification of true manufacturing cost saving and response improving opportunities. This category of solution, often known as Manufacturing Intelligence (MI), allows manufacturing companies to “mine” data from disparate (control, process data gathering, laboratory, asset management, production scheduling, resource planning and accounting) systems, then analyze, correlate, and act on manufacturing anomalies.

Although MI tools are powerful, the scope of deployment often is too complex or too large for manufacturing enterprises who must then rely on qualified manufacturing solutions providers to install, configure and train users to get the most value from the systems.

A new breed of manufacturing SI

To meet the needs of manufacturers, today’s manufacturing SI not only adds value through traditional automation systems, but also by integrating control systems, quality systems, supply chain networks, enterprise documentation systems, asset management systems, business systems and intra/internets to provide a holistic view into all aspects of a manufacturing company’s business.

Thus, the SI is changing from an engineering services-only provider to that of a consultative partner that identifies opportunities for improvement while recommending solutions for achieving manufacturing operational excellence.

To do so requires more than technical proficiency with a given set of products. Today’s progressive SI also partakes in continuing education on existing and emerging continuous process improvement initiatives, methods and practices. SIs must then combine their knowledge with practical, field-proven expertise to solve today’s (and tomorrow’s) manufacturing problems. And, as consultants, today’s SIs enter into long-term relationships with customers, ensuring clients’ ongoing operational efficiency.

Competing on value

In order to provide long-term true value to end users and remain price-competitive with other alternatives, today’s SI must make use of standards and virtual technology, and provide new value-add service offerings.


Using standards greatly reduces Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for end-users. By using commonly accepted standards-compliant tools, nomenclature and service providers, the following manufacturers’ costs can be significantly reduced:

• training support personnel,
• training end users,
• costs associated with failure (downtime),
• development and engineering expenses,
• testing infrastructure and expenses,
• required IS/IT support,
• ongoing systems maintenance and expansion.

One such manufacturing standard is ISA 95. Once again, according to Wikipedia, “ISA 95 is an international standard for developing an automated interface between enterprise and control systems. This standard has been developed for global manufacturers. It was developed to be applied in all industries, and in all sorts of processes, like batch processes, continuous and repetitive processes.
“The objectives of ISA 95 are: to provide consistent terminology which is a foundation for supplier and manufacturer communications, provide consistent information models and to provide consistent operations models which is a foundation for clarifying application functionality and how information is to be used.”

In addition to using ISA 95-based products, value-add SIs create and utilize their own ISA 95-based toolsets, application and object libraries and documentation sets.

Virtual technology

In days gone by, it was essential for programming and development work to be done on-site, entailing significant costs for manufacturers if local SIs or company employees lacked the expertise or time to implement a solution.

Today’s virtual tools such as web-based collaboration, remote desktop software, virtual private networks and virtual machine software greatly reduce system and travel costs. Now only commissioning and startâ€�up typically require an on-site presence from the SI.

The advantages to the customer are at least four-fold: 1) reduced travel fees, 2) faster time to implement resulting in lower fees, 3) faster realization of the system benefits and concomitant return on investment, and 4) access to value-added solutions providers no matter their location.

New service offerings

In addition to providing efficient automation systems and improvements to manufacturing operations, today’s SIs also provide services that increase return on assets (ROA) on existing systems as well as lower TCO of existing and new systems.

Performance audits

Performance audits of existing control systems can provide immediate value to manufacturers.

Manufacturing system performance improvements can often be obtained with reprogramming, upgrading and incremental expansion instead of wholesale replacement of existing systems or mechanical modifications to manufacturing lines. Today’s qualified and experienced SIs can quickly identify and implement needed changes, resulting in optimum ROA and low TCO.

System documentation

Often, a manufacturer “inherits” a system that, although running, is poorly documented, thus making repairs, modifications and upgrades difficult. Having a qualified SI examine and document a system provides the end user with a system that can be maintained and upgraded by themselves or the SI.

Documentation runs the gamut from adding comments to code, through upgrading to up-to-date standards-based terminology, all the way to system drawing and wiring diagrams. Once again, end users can often achieve better ROA and lower TCO rather than leaving the system as-is or replacing it.

Software version audits and updates

Each year, buying and using software gets more complex. Licensing rules and policies are hard to understand, resulting in inaccurate licensing, exposing users to fines and other penalties. Version mismatches can cause systems to work poorly together, or perhaps not at all. Security patches, if not applied, or applied incorrectly, can cause similar problems. Today, manufacturers can call on qualified SIs to conduct software audits and provide system update and security patch upgrade services. Usually priced on an annual subscription basis, these services tend to cost the end�user less than if the systems are untended and out of compliance.

Recommended reading

• “What IT professionals should know about Manufacturing” – article --
• ISA 95 Standards –
• “The Business of Manufacturing” whitepaper –
• “Metrics that Matter” – report --
• “An Introduction to OEE” – whitepaper --
• “Gain Competitive Advantage” -- whitepaper –
• “Lean Transformation: How to Change Your Business into a Lean Enterprise” -- book – Bruce Henderson – The Oaklea Press

About Apex Manufacturing Solutions

Founded in 2005, Apex Manufacturing Solutions, is a Boise, Idaho-based manufacturing systems integrator with extensive, successful experience implementing control, monitoring and reporting systems in a broad range of manufacturing and process industries, such as semiconductor, food and beverage, forest products, energy, water utilities and mining and minerals.

Apex is a full-service, consultative solutions provider, also offering system audit, upgrade, and documentation services.

Clients include global companies in the semiconductor, food/beverage processing, consumer packaged goods, lumber and paper, metals and mining, water, and primary and alternative energy industries.

About the author

John Nichols, Vice President of Business Development at Apex Manufacturing Solutions, is a veteran of over 25 years’ bringing successful manufacturing automation and optimization solutions to market.

Previous assignments include executive management roles at Wonderware Software, the world’s leading manufacturing automation software developer, and Incuity Software, Inc., a pioneering business intelligence for manufacturing software provider.