If you’ve become involved in the world of industrial automation, you may have heard the terms “integrator,” “automation integrator,” or “automated systems integrator.” The term “systems integrator” exists in both the fields of industrial automation and information systems. There are some blurred lines between those fields, as both involve networking, computers, and programming. In this article, I will go over the concept of automated systems integration within the fields of industrial automation and manufacturing.
What Is An Automation Integrator?
Let’s say you’ve just opened a new business. You want to manufacture pencils.
Your company has a solid business plan, funding, a building, your management team, and employees. You know the colors that you want to manufacture and even how you want to market your products. There’s just one little problem… You don’t know anything about how to actually manufacture pencils. That is where a systems integrator comes in.
An integrator is a company that specializes in bringing systems, equipment, and machinery together to create a manufacturing solution. Thus, an integrator “integrates” whatever types of equipment and controls are required to turn separate machines into an assembly line (or other automated solution). The machines that are integrated may or may not be designed to work together easily. To do the job, the integrator must overcome any technical challenges to build a complete solution.
In this sense, an integrator transforms unrelated machinery and electronics into a factory. You can think of a factory as a sort of monstrous Rube Goldberg machine that converts raw materials into marketable products.
What Kinds of Equipment Does An Automated Systems Integrator Have to Bring Together?
Consider everything going on in the image above (view full size here).
The red and grey assemblies in the center of the image are “conveyor beds.” Conveyors are custom-built fixtures that transport units to each “station” on the assembly line. Integrators fabricate the frames of the conveyor beds from stock steel. Industrial motors and roller systems built into the conveyor do the job of getting the units to physically move down the line.
This is just one example of a conveyance system. Conveyance comes in all shapes and sizes, depending on what is being manufactured. The conveyor beds shown above likely weigh around a ton. At the other end of the spectrum, you have smaller components like circuit boards. Conveyor systems of this size weigh only a few pounds.
The production units themselves ride through the conveyor system on “pallets.” Similarly, a pallet is custom-built to hold and carry the unit down the line. Pallets ride through the automation, passing from conveyor bed to conveyor bed.
Additionally, pallets are built to precise tolerances. When a unit arrives in a station, the robots will do their work in the same physical location each time. For this reason, pallets must all be almost exactly the same, so that each unit will sit in a very specific position at each station.
Pallets hold each unit in place with carefully sized pins, or by other mechanical means. This helps to ensure proper positioning. In industrial automation, “repeatability” is the name of the game. Repeatability is the idea that, in automation, the same exact thing should happen in the same exact place every time.
Systems Integrator Roles
What is an automated systems integrator responsible for in regards to conveyance? Integrators will likely build, position, level, and program the conveyor systems. Systems integrators must take great care in many details to ensure that the conveyors will run smoothly. As examples, beds must be precisely assembled and leveled, and many parameters must be programmed into each motor and drive system.
You can see many robots in the image above. Each robot is ready to go in and work on the next vehicle.
How does each robot know where to go to do its job? Integrators must carefully plan, teach, and test motion for each robot. Also, each robot must be programmed to control and receive feedback from its “EOAT” (End Of Arm Tool).
The robot is just a means of moving the EOAT to where it needs to be. What is an EOAT? The EOAT is what actually gets the work done in a robotic factory. There are many different types of End Of Arm Tools. Some examples include:
- Material Handlers: move parts from one place to another
- Machine Vision: records data or provides error-prevention
- Joining: welders, riveters, or other equipment that fastens parts together
The robots above look like they’re carrying weld guns. Weld guns are used to “spot weld” the frame of the vehicle together. Welders work by touching the top and bottom of a part of the vehicle. Then, they pass a high current from one side of the gun to the other. The heat generated by this current flow welds the metal of the vehicle together.
For this reason, each weld gun needs a weld controller. Each weld controller has to be setup to output a certain amount of power. Further, this power setting has to be carefully tested to ensure that the gun generates the right amount of heat to form a good weld.
Safety, Sensors, Feedback, And Motion
- Gates, fencing, light curtains, E-Stop buttons, and other safety devices exist throughout the automation equipment to protect the people that work in the area
- Also, sensors, switches, operator buttons, and other input devices inform the PLC on the status and position of various equipment
- Lights, buzzers, displays, valves, motors, actuators, and other output devices move parts and help humans understand what the equipment is doing
Imagine the variety of these components present on a large automation line. There may be several sensors on one machine. Further, each sensor may work differently and come from a different manufacturer. An automated systems integrator must be able to install and configure all of these many, many different industrial automation devices.
Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC’s)
A “PLC” (Programmable Logic Controller) is the brains of the operation. PLC’s accept inputs from the equipment and sensors. The PLC then performs processing, and sets outputs based on its programming. These outputs then control the actions that take place in the automation.
For example, an air supply line has an analog pressure sensor. Our pressure sensor sends a signal to the PLC that represents the pressure read at the sensor. The PLC has been programmed to interpret the signal sent from the sensor. In the PLC’s logic, the signal’s value is converted back to a pressure reading.
Then, integrators have programmed the PLC to check this pressure reading against a minimum pressure. If the pressure reading is lower than the minimum pressure, the PLC turns on a pump. In this case, the PLC sets outputs to the pump that command it to turn on. This is an example of how integrators might program a PLC to manage air pressure in a supply line.
PLC’s must be carefully programmed for each application. This programming must take into consideration concerns for safety, quality, efficiency, ease of use, and repair.
Human-Machine Interfaces (HMI’s)
To allow operators to interact with the machinery without having to know how to program a PLC, there needs to be one or more “HMI” (Human-Machine Interface) panels. An HMI is a programmable display; it’s basically a fancy computer monitor. Using an HMI, someone can interact with the PLC through buttons and other input devices on the screen. Many modern HMI’s are rugged touchscreen interfaces, built to withstand the industrial environment.
What Jobs Are Available In Automated Systems Integration?
Often, a manufacturer will approach a systems integration company with a system it wants built. The integrator then designs and builds a complete automation solution that will assemble the manufacturer’s product. Building an automation line from scratch requires a variety of skills and talents.
- Managers oversee the business side of the operation
- Mechanical Engineers, Electrical Engineers, Automation Engineers, and engineers from other specialties will design the systems. Engineers will ensure that the equipment and programming meets the customer’s specifications and any appropriate codes and regulations. In this regard, engineers must dig into the little details to understand, for instance, what type of sensor will fit a particular application. Engineers may perform PLC programming, HMI design, and development of “templates” of logic for use in the PLC and robotics
- Millwrights cut and weld large assemblies, operate lifting equipment, and fasten components to the building’s structure. Also, millwrights are often responsible for servicing and repairing large motors, gearboxes, and other heavy-duty mechanical devices
- Toolmakers fabricate detailed components to tight tolerances
- Robot Technicians set up and program robotic systems
- Similarly, PLC Technicians set up and program the controllers
- Industrial Electricians wire and install a wide range of electrical components, and may also program PLC’s, robots, and other electronic controllers
In my experience, these are the core positions that automation integration shops employ. That is, at least in terms of building the automated systems. There may also be any number of other administrative positions in marketing, sales, finance, and other fields. On the technical side of the house, integrators may also employ Software Engineers, IT Technicians, and Facilities Engineers. Do you feel that I should have listed other positions? Let me know in the comments!
What Is It Like Working For An Automated Systems Integrator?
A typical work flow for an integration project might be as follows:
- Firstly, project planning and materials acquisition
- Machine assembly and programming at the integration facility
- Transportation to the customer
- Once on-site, machine installation, debug, and trials at the customer facility
- On-site support as the customer takes on ownership of the equipment
- Lastly, project wrap-up
Work Life As An Automation Integrator
Given that many integration projects consist of building an automated assembly line from scratch, integration work often occurs at the customer location. Depending on the size of the integration shop and the size of the project to which you’re assigned, very high travel percentages may be required. In other words, automated systems integrators may spend as much as 90-100% of their time away from home.
Customers who have purchased large or complicated automation solutions may require support well in to the launch of the project. Because of this, on-site support requirements can range from days to years. If you are a competent member of the team or have done a lot of the programming on a certain line, the company may ask you to stay on the road for months. In this case, many companies allow for you to travel home every couple of weeks.
Providing support for the customer can be stressful. The automation equipment that your company has built is what the customer uses to make money. For this reason, they may not be very happy when it breaks down.
On the other hand, you may be able to land a design or commissioning position that does not require any travel. Those performing “machine assembly” at the shop may be able to enjoy a similar lifestyle to other 9-to-5 positions. Even so, many shops will have “surges” in the pace of work. There may be slow periods followed by stretches where your boss wants you working overtime every day of the week.
Pay And Benefits For Automation Integrators
The good news is that many integration shops offer very competitive wages and benefits. While on the road, many shops pay both overtime and “Per Diem.” Per Diem is extra money the integration shop will pay you for each day away from home. This additional pay covers food and other costs.
There can be other perks of travelling. For example, opportunities to visit new places, work in cool facilities, and network with other professionals. When I have had to travel for automation work, I have generally been put up at nice or at least decent hotels and had dinner out on the company dime.
Whether or not you’re travelling, you may have the ability to participate in training and continuing education so that you can continue to grow technically. Not to mention, you’re building industrial automation equipment! If you’re a person who enjoys working with automation, it’s hard to find a more interesting or challenging job.
What Should I Study If I Want to Work For an Integrator?
Of course, the answer to this question depends on what type of position you’re pursuing.
- For a position as a skilled tradesperson (millwright, toolmaker, electrician), see if you can land an internship
- In certain areas, certificate or Associate’s programs may be available to help you get a job as a skilled tradesperson
- For engineering, complete a Bachelor’s degree in the field of your choice (Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, etc.)
- Automated systems integrators may also hire persons with degrees in Industrial Automation or Mechatronics
- If you want to work as a PLC or robotics technician, you may be able to complete a local or online training program to help get your foot in the door
- Industrial electricians with PLC or robot experience should be qualified for this type of position
Integrators make magic happen – they turn disparate systems into one large, cohesive “machine.” From custom assembly of heavy, metal fixtures, to robot and controller programming, an integration shop has to be able to do it all.
Are you aspiring to work for an integrator, or would you like to relate your own work experience in integration? If so, share your story in the comments below!
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