The 21st century systems integrator

It is no secret that manufacturing is suffering from a shortage of skilled workers. Over the next 10 years, demand will create the need for 4.6 million jobs — over half of which risk going unfilled. To handle manufacturing’s digital transformation, the shortfall in qualified workers needs to be addressed.

Here, Andy Marshall, technical manager at systems integrator Boulting Technology discusses how the role of systems integration is changing and what is expected of the 21st century systems integrator.

Systems integration has always been something of a complex operation. Their expertise brings together component subsystems ensuring that software, hardware, networking and storage products from multiple vendors are integrated safely. With rapidly changing client needs and technological advances, integrators need an in-depth understanding of how to provide solutions and meet the outcomes clients want to improve their business.

Thirty or so years ago, information for protocols and software was not so accessible, standards were unevolved and the landscape for integrators very different. Now, the landscape is unrecognisable with manuals and information for software packages held on the internet, rapid connectivity as well as consistent standards and protocols.

Technically speaking

With a range of technology at our fingertips, systems integration has had to develop to keep pace. Born between 1994 and 2004, Generation Z has never known a world that isn’t surrounded by technology. The question is, how will this digital proficiency aid a short-skilled industry?

For the modern integrator, the world appears to be their oyster. As client bases extend across the globe, integrators need to access systems and support customers no matter where they are located. As today’s manufacturers seek to enhance their Maintenance, Repair and Operation programs (MRO), remote monitoring and diagnostics are commonplace in system design.

Visualising instructions

No longer confined to the realms of video gaming and design, Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR and VR) are increasingly prominent in industry. In 2017, the government’s Made Smart Review identified AR and VR as key disruptors that will boost productivity in manufacturing.

With complicated equipment that often involve hundreds of discrete components integrated into one object or device, AR provides the opportunity to superimpose information, drawings and instructions onto a worker’s field of vision using a pair of ‘smart glasses’. Manuals and instructions can be accessed in the blink of an eye and, as these can be automatically updated, it eliminates relying on potentially out-of-date documents — gone are the days of rifling through lengthy and dated documentation.

Augmented reality’s ‘see-what-I-see’ view can also aid relationships between integrators and on-site technicians. On the shop floor, workers may not have the knowledge or expertise to repair a fault or install new equipment independently. With Augmented Reality, a systems integrator can visually demonstrate how to complete such tasks, without being physically present.

Tackling threat

While a wealth of data has always existed, manufacturers are now analysing it to help make more informed decisions. In fact, many clients now ask their systems integrators to provide dashboards in a business central office to display key production data. But while acting on insights gives companies a competitive edge, by opening the network to other locations, this increases the vulnerability for cyberattacks.

A recent example includes an attack by a group called Sandworm, which was part of a larger network that hacked into dozens of Ukrainian governmental organisations and penetrated the networks of victims ranging from media outlets to railway firms, detonating logic bombs and destroying terabytes of data.

There is no silver bullet that eliminates attacks, but systems integrators must be vigilant when installing new systems. To that end, a multi-layered approach that works across both informational and operational technology (IT/OT) must be put into place. As the worlds of IT/OT converge, integrators must implement an end-to-end digitalisation strategy, like here at Boulting Technology, to incorporate and protect both environments of systems integration.

While the shortage of skilled workers still remains a major worry, the next generation of systems integrators holds hope for closing the skills gap. However, it is certainly possible to teach older, more experienced integrators new tricks and the 21st century integrator must keep pace with the rise digital technologies, while remaining aware of the risks that such developments pose.

The author of this blog is Andy Marshall, technical manager of Boulting Technology

Comment on this article below or via Twitter: @IoTNow_OR @jcIoTnow

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