When installing a new line or process, many people consider systems integration as one of the last items in the project. The cost is often viewed simply as the purchase price of the system, and is often treated as a commodity just like any run-of-the-mill piece of equipment. Buyers should beware, as the true cost of systems integration can be a lot more complicated than that. Learn more about how to understand and measure these costs, and the budget will stay in balance over the long haul.
Good beginning, good ending
The up-front costs of a system integration project include the cost of materials, software licenses, travel, installation, and various sorts of technical labor. There are a wide variety of factors that can significantly influence these costs for any given production line or process.
Some systems provide very tight control of the processing equipment or production line, while others have more variability. Certain ones are rigid in their actions and only allow a pre-defined set of operations, whereas others allow much more flexibility. Some have massive redundancies and others have multiple points of failure. Systems can be very intuitive to operate or require substantial training. Some are extremely safe to run; with little risk to people, high degrees of product integrity, and layers of protection for processing equipment. Others carry significant risks if not operated as intended.
Certain features, such as safety, product integrity, and equipment protection, tend to be universally desired. Others, like flexibility or ease of operations, can be a matter of budget, preference, process, or business requirements. All of these have an influence on both the initial up-front costs and the total true cost of the system over time. It is important to sort out these factors up front.
For example, in general the tighter you wish to control a process, the more you need to measure it. The more you measure it, the higher your costs in the form of instrumentation, sensors, I/O modules, electrical engineering, programming, installation, and maintenance. There is always a balance point between the cost of waste due to variance in a process and the total cost required to control the process within a certain limit. Higher value raw materials and finished products require tighter control. Paying attention to this balance point up front can yield great dividends in the long run. There is a fiscal context to both under-controlling and over-monitoring a process or production line.
Various factors influence up-front costs, as well as the carrying costs over time.
Lifecycle costs: Prosperity over time
Most systems are in operation for years. It is important to consider what the operational requirements will be over time. One item to consider is the flexibility of operations. It is relatively straightforward to design and install a system with a limited number of pre-programmed operations. It is usually more complicated and expensive to design, test, and install a system with a large number of flexible operations.
Many manufacturers have an increasing number of products SKUs (stock-keeping units) and need a lot of agility built into control systems. For such manufacturing operations, it will likely make sense to invest up front in a system that will accommodate this requirement over time. Putting such flexibility into the hands of operations staff usually will be a lot less expensive than repeated redesigns by technical staff over the lifecycle of the system.
For many facilities downtime spells disaster. In some instances the loss associated with one hour of downtime can outweigh the entire up-front cost of the system. It is important to get a clear handle on the true costs of downtime for the line, facility, or connected supply chain. Redundancy can be designed into all systems on many levels including servers, controllers, workstations, and more. This will add to up-front costs, but it can be a smart trade-off if the downtime tolerance is low.
Staffing: Turnover, ergonomics
Another item to consider is the staff turnover rate for those individuals in operations and maintenance. Just like so many smart devices on the market today, easy intuitive control system operations generally require a bunch of smarts under the hood. There is a wide array of operator interface and visualization products on the market, and an almost infinite way to configure them. If your staff turnover rate is high and your process is complex, it might make economic sense to spend a bit more up front with higher end visualization products and configurations to make staff training easier.
Don’t forget the ergonomics of how people interact with your system as they perform their work. The number and location of your operator workstations should take all of this into account. System workstations need to be relatively close to where the work is performed and in sufficient quantity so that multiple operators are not tripping over each other trying to access the system. A little more infrastructure of this sort can save a lot of labor costs over the life of your system.
Staffing: Be safe, not sorry
The safe operation of your system should be the top design consideration. A system needs to protect people above all else, but also be concerned with product integrity and protection of processing equipment. The risk of loss in any of these areas can far exceed the total up-front cost of the system.
The chief risk to people comes in areas that are semi-automated, mixing automated equipment operations with manual human operations. Sensors and programming are needed in the right mix to prevent unsafe operations from starting, and to stop operations when an unsafe condition is sensed. Protecting product and equipment should be approached in a similar manner. Adequate permissives must be programmed to insure safe setups; operations at cross purpose must be interlocked; and critical faults must be programmed to immediately stop all unsafe operations.
As part of the design process, a functional description detailing all of these items is invaluable. Distribute the functional description document to all relevant stakeholders for input. This is a great way to ensure that all bases are covered. Prior to installing any system, you may need regression testing to ensure all permutations of operations are performing properly. This all takes time and money, but it can be a small cost compared to potential losses in any of these areas.
A final word on safety: On workstations, it is all too easy to configure all sorts of measurement values as alarms. This can be self-defeating, as it creates “noise” that makes it difficult to separate real problems from simple process status. Human response to alarm conditions is a necessary element for safe operations. Only configure alarms that are actionable to better manage safe operations and mitigate your risk of loss in this regard.
Preventive, predictive analytics
The final consideration on the true cost of system integration is the potential savings it can generate. A smartly designed system can provide both operational and maintenance savings over the life of the system. Use of historian products and manufacturing analytics afford deep insight into the behavior of a processing system or production line. These powerful tools can deliver significant return on investment over the life of a system.
Should something unexpected happen in a process, systems with complete historian capabilities can be invaluable in diagnosing what happened. This could include recording all device actuations, operator actions, and sensor measurements from moment to moment. The plummeting cost of information storage makes such solutions much more financially viable than they were just a few years ago. When compared to the costs of a product recall, the cost of this extra visibility can be insignificant.
Measuring and trending device actuation cycle times or run times can be a great aid in preventive maintenance for related devices. It is almost always cheaper to properly maintain a device based on its usage than operate it until it fails, or waste time and money on premature maintenance. Recording and analyzing actual run and cycle times can allow preventive maintenance to be performed in the most efficient, effective manner.
Finally, the ability to monitor operations over time can yield data that can turn into actionable information to help improve the operating efficiency of the processing equipment or production line. These analytics include operational equipment effectiveness (OEE) analysis, downtime analysis, statistical process control (SPC), linear regression performance analysis, and more. Such analytics can unleash hidden capacity in the processing system, without the need to capitalize new equipment.
Costs and considerations for control system design and implementation should be an integral part of all project planning, not an afterthought at the end. The long-term costs and benefits are often much more complicated than they appear on the surface. Proper design practices should include considerations not just for the immediate project, but for the anticipated behavior and value the system can provide over time. Follow the guidelines outlined here to enable your system to provide the most value to manufacturing operations and to keep long-term costs in check.
- System integration shouldn’t be considered a commodity.
- Effective system integration lowers costs and increases value over the project lifecycle.
- It is better to involve a system integration expert earlier in project design, rather than later.
At what point are you involving experts with eyes on project lifecycle costs and benefits?
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