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Systems integrators deliver design help

Systems integrators deliver design help

The average engineer is working on two or three projects at once, with the average project lasting less than 12 months. This data from an October, 2000 survey of 5,000 Design News readers can also be described in one word-scary.

Faced with such a hectic schedule, engineers are asking for help-41% of engineers say they are outsourcing more work today than they did five years ago.

And they're not just waiting on hold for tech support. Increasingly, engineers are asking for help with the very design of their projects. Many rely on their supplier companies, with 48% saying they ask for design assistance. Likewise, 38% say they ask for design assistance from their manufacturers. But the largest portion (63%) have turned to engineering consultants and systems integrators for help.

Just what is a systems integrator? The term covers a lot of ground. One systems integrator-Stratos Product Development (Seattle, WA)-calls itself "a full-service product development firm with comprehensive in-house design, engineering, marketing, and incubation capabilities."

Microsoft tapped this resource for the development of its new Xbox video game console, including electrical, mechanical, and firmware development, and industrial design support-Stratos helped design everything from controller electronics and memory modules to the triggers, analog buttons, and motor capture.

Systems integrators provide a broad range of engineering services, including design consultation, hardware/software integration, control system design and implementation, and development of subsystems such as front end interfaces and motion control systems. To highlight this broad range of capabilities, we summarize several successful projects involving systems integrators.

Integrator helps manage Internet data centers

Systems integrator: Stratos Product Development, LLC, Seattle, WA, www.stratos.com

End user: RLX Technologies, The Woodlands, TX

Description of design project/product: RLX sells servers, peripherals, services, and software to web-hosting companies and Internet data centers. Its goal is to provide web server technology with higher density, low power consumption, fast deployment and ease of use, and systems reliability.

Services provided: Stratos provided mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and software engineering, as well as industrial designers and program managers for the System 1U, built for customers who need to manage remote server locations. They collaborated under one roof to finish the project within a five-month timeline.

Stratos took the concept for a low-power, low-cost data storage device that allows customers to run up to six RLX ServerBlades in a standard 1U chassis, and completed every phase of product design-including system architecture, risk analysis and mitigation, full environmental testing, system detail design, two prototype builds and testing, regulatory and compliance testing, and transition to pilot production.

The simplicity of the RLX System 1U Chassis design is that it supports six servers that share power supplies, fans, and mounting hardware for maximum efficiency. This midplane design integrates the system power, management, and network signals across all six RLX ServerBlades. ServerBlade connectors on the system midplane eliminate the need for internal system cables, and enable efficient hot-plug support. Users can even replace every electrical and electro-mechanical component of the system without removing the product from the rack, making service in remote offices simple. In addition, the design gives customers the added transition benefit of being able to use their existing RLX ServerBlades in this new, smaller, less expensive system.

Why use a systems integrator? RLX needed engineering and industrial design services in one location due to extremely tight timelines and the range of expertise needed to support a project of this complexity. The benefits included the integrator's expertise and an extremely fast time from concept to finished prototype.

Key products/tools employed: PTC Pro/ENGINEER; Alias Wavefront Studio

Engineering firm powers an 800-ft conveyor

Systems integrator: Electric Systems Integrator, LLC, a division of NSC Schlumberger, Chattanooga, TN, www.esidrives.com

End user: Carpet manufacturer (Dalton, GA)

Description of project: Design the electrical supply, power, and drivers for an 800-ft long web transport system that applies a backing coat to the carpet, laminates the coating, takes the carpet through a heat treatment cycle, and finally rolls it so it can be cut to size.

Services provided: ESI worked out the power and torque that would be needed on the line, then acquired and laid out variable speed drives and SLC500 PLC controllers for 80 sections of the web transport line. ESI used just 10 PCs-instead of an original 13-to control that section of the plant, and wrote software that made them effective operator interfaces, with touch screen controls that took the place of push buttons on older lines.

Why use a systems integrator? Companies can often realize substantial cost savings by using a systems integrator, compared to going directly to the manufacturers. In addition, "integrators can tailor the equipment to the application," says Martin Wall, director of R&D and Special Projects for ESI. "We can mix and match, and set up just the right solution. By going to a single manufacturer, a customer would have to purchase all the equipment from them." Systems integrators also provide service that can be difficult to obtain from a large supplier, Wall says. "We're close to the customer and we can provide service 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Key products applied: Allen Bradley variable speed drives

Integrator automates cigarette-packing factory

Systems integrator: HK Systems, New Berlin, WI, www.hksystems.com

End user company: Philip Morris, McFadden warehouse, Richmond, VA

Description of design project/product: The "finished goods system" in Philip Morris' cigarette manufacturing center includes all the subsystems needed to move cigarettes from initial production into delivery trucks:

  • Delivery from cigarette manufacturing

  • Case sorting and palletizing

  • Pallet conveying and stretch-wrapping

  • Pallet delivery system

  • Auto truck loading and unloading

  • Human machine interface (HMI) software controls

To deliver cigarettes from manufacturing, HK replaced the outdated conveyor controls with PLC controls, including the tasks of PLC programming and full installation. HK also replaced the case conveyor and controls, so cases can transfer through semi-automated switches before they arrive-detecting loose bottom flaps, for example. The system then sorts the cases onto one of eight conveyor loops (each with a dozen spurs), using four sorters and a series of merges, so they can be picked up by one of the four overhead gantry robotic palletizers, each with two rail cars, two pallet dispensers, and 24 pallet stands. The cars are controlled by radio frequency (RF) and positioned with in-floor magnets. Finally, the conveyor brings the pallets to one of three in-line stretch-wrappers, then sends them either to one of the 10 hand-palletizing stations or to one of the seven truck-loading lanes. Controlling all this are people using 14 HMIs, each with a PC and color terminal running two custom software applications.

Services provided: HK had to create a "finished goods system" that could handle all sub-tasks simultaneously, and perform construction and warehouse renovation.

Why use a systems integrator? To handle the wide variety of specialties needed to build the entire system-conveyors, controls, switches, robotics, RF controls, magnetics, computer hardware, and software. Among other benefits, the final system consolidates palletizing and shipping from two facilities into one. It is able to receive new products from the manufacturing department 24/7. And it integrates materials handling, controls, and information management systems, so they work with minimum manual labor or supervision

Key products applied: Modicon PLC controls

Integrator helps Monsanto boost corn growth

Systems integrator: Quantum Design Inc., Loves Park, IL, www.quantumdi.com

End user company: Agricultural seed product facility for Monsanto (headquartered in St. Louis, MO)

Description of project: Design a system to help operations people in a new plant to control and monitor production.

Services provided: The plant wanted to expand its seed corn processing facilities very quickly. So the systems integrator set up a plant-wide control system that uses four Ethernet-based processors linked to a server, and six user nodes that monitor a variety of process equipment. Quantum Design made it possible to set up preconfigured motor control centers within weeks. The whole plant took less than four months to become fully operational.

Why use a systems integrator? The customer chose to use a systems integrator because Quantum Design supplied controls that it manufactures, developed software to capture factory floor information and provide it to decision makers, and channeled business and management data to the factory floor. "The greatest value we offer is our thinking skills," says a Quantum Design spokesman. "We approach problems from the viewpoint of knowing how to handle a wide range of technologies and understanding human nature-that is, what people can work with. We can become part of a project team and apply our knowledge to the particular problem at hand."

Key products applied: Quantum works with many outside hardware vendors, including Rockwell. They are a Microsoft Certified Solution Provider, but work with other software vendors as well, to suit customers' needs.

Outsourcing grows across all industries
Percent respondents who are outsourcing more of their engineering design work than they did 5 years ago.
Total Aerospace/Defense Appliances/Consumer products Autos/Trucks Heavy trucks Off highway Computers/Office Equipment Communications/Wireless Semiconductor manufacturing Machine tools Packaging Equipment Processing Equipment Medical
41% 38% 46% 43% 43% 47% 44% 40% 40% 26% 38% 37%
Source: Design News Reader Survey, October 2000
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