What Is an Automation Integrator?

If you’ve become involved in the world of industrial automation, you may have heard the term “integrator.”  In this article, I will go over the concept of integration and describe a bit about what an integrator does.

 

What Is an Integrator?

Let’s say you’ve formed a company and you want to manufacture pencils.

Several colored pencils.

 

You have a solid business plan, funding, a building, your management team, employees, and you know the colors of pencil that you want to manufacture and how you want to market your products.  There’s just one little problem… You don’t know anything about how to actually go about manufacturing pencils.  That is where an integrator comes in.

 

An automation 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 – that aren’t necessarily designed to work together – into an automated assembly line.  In this sense, an integrator transforms unrelated machinery and electronics into a factory, which is a sort of monstrous Rube Goldberg machine that converts raw materials into marketable products.

A view of the Frame line in the Tesla Model S factory. Many robots can be seen working on or prepared to work on the frame of the vehicle as it travels down a conveyor system in the center of the automation line.
The Tesla Model S Framer.

 

What Kinds of Equipment Does an 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 “conveyors,” custom-built fixtures that transport the units to each “station” on the assembly line.  Conveyors are built from stock steel and have industrial motors and roller systems installed that do the job of getting the units to physically move down the line.  This is just one example of a conveyance system; they come in all shapes and sizes depending on what is being manufactured.

The units themselves ride through the conveyor system on “pallets.”  A pallet is, again, a custom-built fixture that is designed to facilitate the motion of the unit down the line, all the while holding each unit in a very specific position at each station.  Pallets hold the unit in place with tightly-dimensioned pins or other mechanical means to ensure proper positioning.

You can see many robots in the image above, each of which is ready to go in and work on the vehicle as it arrives at the robot’s station.  The motion of each robot must be carefully planned, taught, and tested, and 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; the EOAT is what actually gets the work done in a robotic factory.  There are many different types of End Of Arm Tools, from material handlers that move a piece of metal from one place to another, to vision systems that record data or provide error-proofing, to joining equipment that serves to fasten parts together.  The robots above look like they’re carrying weld guns, which would be used to “spot weld” the frame of the vehicle together.  Each gun would have to be set up to output a certain amount of power to generate the right amount of heat to form a good weld.

To protect the people that work in the area, gates, fencing, light curtains, E-Stop buttons, and other safety devices are installed around the automation equipment.  Sensors, switches, operator buttons, and other input devices are present throughout an automation line to allow the system to know 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.

“PLC” (Programmable Logic Controller), the brains of the operation, accepts inputs from the equipment, performs processing, and then directs the operations being performed by setting outputs.  PLC’s must be carefully programmed for the application, taking into consideration concerns for safety, quality, efficiency, and ease of use and repair.

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, basically a digital or computer screen, on which someone can interact with the PLC.  Many modern HMI’s are rugged touchscreen interfaces designed for use in the industrial environment.

An example of a custom Human-Machine Interface screen. This screen shows several feedback and control points for a well control system.
An example of a custom HMI screen used to control a well.

 

What Jobs Are Available In Integration?

When a manufacturer approaches an integration company with a manufacturing requirement, the integrator will design and build a complete automation solution that will be used to assemble the product.  Building an automation line from scratch requires a variety of skills and talents.

  • Managers oversee the business side of the operation.
  • Mechanical, Electrical, Automation, and other Engineers will design the systems and ensure that everything meets the customer’s specifications and any appropriate codes and regulations.  Engineers may also be involved in programming.
  • Millwrights will be employed to cut and weld large assemblies, operate lifting equipment, and fasten components to the building’s structure.
  • Toolmakers fabricate detailed components to tight tolerances.
  • Industrial Electricians wire and install a wide range of electrical components.
  • Robot Technicians set up and program robotic systems.
  • PLC Technicians set up and program the controllers.

In my experience, these are the core positions needed at an integration shop.  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 Integrator?

A typical work flow for an integration project might be as follows:

  • Project planning and materials acquisition
  • Machine assembly and programming at the integration facility
  • Transportation to the customer
  • Machine installation, debug, and trials at the customer facility
  • On-site support as the customer takes on ownership of the equipment
  • Project wrap-up

 

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 (sometimes 90-100% away from home).  Customers who have purchased large or complicated automation solutions may require support well in to the launch of the project; on-site support requirements can range from weeks to years.  If you are a competent member of the team or have done a lot of the programming on a certain line, you may be asked to stay on the road for months.  Providing support for the customer can be stressful; the automation equipment that your company has built is what the customer uses to make money – they may not be very happy when it breaks down.

The good news is that many integration shops offer competitive wages and benefits, and while on the road, many shops pay both overtime and “Per Diem” – extra money for each day away from home to cover food and other costs.  There can be other perks of travelling, including 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.

 

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), pursue an internship in your desired skill.  In certain states, 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.).  Industrial Automation or Mechatronics may also be degrees that would make you desirable to an integration shop.

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.

 

In Summary

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?  Share your story below!

 

 

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