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Selecting the Right System Integrator for Your Project

POSTED 06/09/2000  | By: Hallie Forcinio, Contributing Editor, Managing Automation Magazine

A look at the key issues involved in selecting the right integrator for your specific needs

If your company doesn't have the personnel with the skills or time to devote to a robotic installation, it's time to consider hiring a systems integrator.

An integrator adds value because a robot is only 25 or 30 percent of the system. 'There's no such thing as hardware without fixtures and programming,' says Rich Litt, president and CEO of Genesis Systems Group, Davenport, IA. 'The end user must either choose an integrator or become an integrator,' he adds.

A Genesis client, Diebold Inc., North Canton, OH, decided to hire an integrator four years ago when it started thinking about installing welding cells to construct ATM safes. 'We didn't have anyone on staff with experience in automated fixturing,' explains Ken Hamby, manager, manufacturing engineering services at Diebold.

Integrators typically specialize in certain applications such as welding, material handling, painting, machine loading/unloading, sealing, machining and assembly. Genesis, for example, focuses on arc welding and thermal cutting, while the forte of RAM Center, Red Wing, MN, and Midmac Systems, Inc., St. Paul, MN, is material handling along with packaging and palletizing. Midmac also handles assembly applications.

Another integrator, Factory Automation Systems, Atlanta, GA, specializes in material handling and machine tool loading/unloading. Its FlexTrend generic work cell pre-engineers about 80 percent of the system so that customization is mainly limited to robot tooling and parts delivery fixtures. Reducing the level of customization 'eliminates a lot of risk and cost and reduces delivery time,' says Ron Potter, director of robotics at Factory Automation Systems.

Integrators should be involved at the earliest stage of a project as soon as a company has determined it has an automation need. Often, this is long before a purchase order is issued. 'Involving an integrator in the conceptual design and development phase may affect other aspects of the product or process that would prove beneficial in the overall automation program,' explains Michael Perreault, vice president at Midmac.

Because a robot is not necessarily the best automation solution for every project, Perreault recommends choosing an integrator with experience in both fixed and robotic automation. Selecting a company with dual expertise, 'ensures an objective look at the automation solution,' he says.

When a robot is the solution selected, the next decision is whether a gantry, Cartesian or pedestal design will work best.

When involved early, an integrator can help solve upstream and downstream problems and perform modeling and simulation studies to estimate cycle times, reach and work cell envelope to see if a particular concept will do everything required of it. Once everyone is comfortable with the design, the integrator can provide a cost estimate to help justify the system to management.

Modeling was essential to Diebold, which wanted to change the construction of its ATM safes from an outside to an inside welded unit and use two-sided fixtures so operators can unload finished parts and load fresh components while the robot welds. When Genesis provided a model showing how this could be done, they were hired to serve as the integrator for the project. The relationship has proven to be longstanding. In fact Genesis recently completely installation of a seventh ATM safe work cell at Diebold's manufacturing facility in Sumter, SC.

Selection considerations
When selecting an integrator, a number of factors should be considered. Its geographic presence, regional, national or international, should match your circumstances.

Potential candidates should be experienced in your industry and application and have a good reputation for similar projects. Experience also should extend beyond robotics to tooling. 'How the robot is integrated with the tooling and problems are worked out is what counts,' says Hamby.

To help prospective customers evaluate integrators, Midmac has developed a Supplier Evaluation Form it includes with its proposals. Organized as a spread sheet in either a Lotus or Excel format, the form enables customers to rate the importance of various criteria to their purchase and rate up to four suppliers on each criteria. Criteria include supplier concept, features, supplier flexibility, ease of changeover, construction, controls/software experience, maintenance, service, documentation/drawings, manuals, delivery, price and 'gut feel.'  'Each of the categories has a weighted score, which allows the buyer to evaluate each candidate objectively,' says Perreault.

Other factors to consider include the integrator's staffing capability and financial stability. Questions to ask include: How much work will be subcontracted? With the staffing and financial resources available, can the work be done in the allotted timeframe? How long has the integrator been in business? Is financial backing adequate?

'It's important to look at history,' says Steve Valade, director of sales and marketing at RAM Center. 'There have been a number of cases where the integrator has been under capitalized and not had the financial resources to complete the project,' he adds. Financial data is readily available even on privately held companies through services like Dun & Bradstreet.

When it comes to staffing, numbers do not tell the whole story. You also need to know background and experience. Does the staff have sufficient depth to provide the expertise needed at the proper points in the project? For example, if an integrator has only one or two staff members capable of programming a robot, this could become a bottleneck and cause delays in the schedule.

Another issue is post-installation support. Some integrators maintain contact at regular intervals. Midmac, for example, follows a quarterly schedule. Other vendors fall on either side ranging from virtually none to basically continuous.

Post-installation support may include periodic updates of hardware, software and documentation, as well as tech support and service. These activities may be included as part of the original project or may require a separate agreement like a service or maintenance contract.

If service and support is not available in-house and your operation requires 24/7 access, make sure the integrator you choose can provide this.

Increasingly an issue in today's quickly changing marketplace where product lives can be measured in months, is whether the integrator will assist in rebuilding or reconfiguring the system to accommodate a new product or task.

Since operators and maintenance personnel should be trained prior to installation, unless trainers are available in-house, it's important that an integrator be able to provide instruction either on-site or at its location. This training should be available on an ongoing basis so new personnel can be familiarized with the system as staffing changes occur due to promotions, reassignments or turnover.

It's also essential that the integrator maintain a permanent, well-organized documentation archives so long-forgotten details can be located quickly when the system needs attention months or years down the road. How long are records kept? How are back-up copies maintained in case of catastrophic events like fires, floods, earthquakes or tornadoes? You'll also want to make sure manuals can be supplied in the level of detail and language(s) required for your operation.

Finally, says Geary Soska, president of Robotic Applications Consulting, North Canton, OH, it's important to know the length of the warranty on the system and what it covers. 'Parts only? Parts and labor? Service personnel travel and expenses? Shipping of new/return of defective parts? Is it based on one-, two- or three-shift-a-day operation? Five or seven days per week? When does it take effect? Upon initial acceptance? Date of shipment? Date of delivery? Date of installation? Date of final acceptance (initial production)? Can it be extended?'

Pitfalls to avoid
When hiring an integrator, common pitfalls include making the decision on price alone, focusing solely on the hardware and overlooking training needs.

Although cost, of course, is a factor in any purchasing decision, the highest degree of success, says Valade, comes when the buyer focuses on picking the best solution based on long-term return.

Success also depends on looking beyond the hardware to consider issues related to manufacturing process flow, training, infrastructure, maintenance and troubleshooting. 'Robotic systems rarely succeed or fail based on the hardware,' notes Litt. 'Configuring hardware is easy,' he adds.

In a nutshell, 'do your homework,' concludes Potter.