Understanding the Differences Between Systems Integrators and Automation Design Engineers by Ruben Pedroza

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Demystifying Systems Integrators and Automation Design Engineers: Understanding the Differences by Ruben Pedroza, Director of Automation, Genesis AEC

By: Karen

When you’re partnering with a design firm to support your product development and manufacturing needs through automation, it’s important to decide whether you should work with a systems integrator or an automation design engineering firm.

In the first article of this three-part series, “Embracing the Power of Automation Design in Pharmaceutical Manufacturing”, we explored how automation helps pharmaceutical, biopharmaceutical, and biotech companies increase efficiencies and accelerate timelines for potentially life-saving therapies and technologies. Next, we will explore the differences between how this support is provided by system integrators versus an automation design engineering firm.

Automation system design requires consideration of several elements. Beyond the selection of a system platform, a good design engineer will work with owners to understand their objectives and criteria for what they wish to achieve from the investment. Examples typically include improved reliability, increased automation (to reduce labor burden), redundancy, analytics, or greater integration between Building Automation (BAS) and Environmental Monitoring (EMS).1,2 The “how” in developing and executing this plan is significant, in order to best manage timeframe and costs for implementation of the plan.

Which Approach Is Right for You: Systems Integrator or Automation Design Engineer?
What’s the difference between a systems integrator and an automation design engineer?

Simply stated, systems integrators are typically responsible for programming and implementing the automation system in a manner that conforms with the design requirement documents.3 Automation design engineers develop the design documents, while also focusing on how to best apply automation system changes in a way that is best aligned with a manufacturing process and overall facility purpose.4 This includes specifying designs that consider the owner’s plans for future expansions and upgrades.

To drill down a little deeper, the main role of systems integrator is to leverage software and hardware platforms, integrate them together into a single automation system, and implement the automation system itself. They specialize in hardware, software, and control systems, and their primary goal is to promote seamless communication and operation between various components of the automation system. They’re focused on technical aspects such as configuring the system, selecting and procuring the appropriate automation equipment, conducting testing and supporting validation of these systems, overseeing installation and commissioning, and providing ongoing support and troubleshooting.

Conversely, automation design engineers design, optimize, and improve the pharmaceutical manufacturing processes to ensure operational efficiency. They analyze existing processes, identify areas for enhancement, and prioritize productivity and product quality.4 Using 3D modeling tools and industry best practices, they predict process behavior, ensure compliance with safety and regulatory standards, perform process validation, and drive continuous improvement initiatives. Finally, they work with architects as well as mechanical, process, process utilities, electrical, and fire protection engineers to ensure that facility designs are fully coordinated with no design gaps.

Automation design engineers do not work in a vacuum. They collaborate with other engineers and systems integrators to define automation requirements based on identified process improvements and ensure alignment with overall process objectives.

Beyond the selection of a system platform, a good design engineer will work with owners to understand their objectives and criteria for what they wish to achieve from the investment

Partnering with an automation design engineer can create the foundation for long-term efficiencies at reduced costs. These benefits include:

  • Development of an Automation Master Plan that documents the overarching goals and criteria for upgrades of the facility and automation system, the parameters of the proposed system, anticipated costs, and timelines for system implementation.
  • Development of necessary project documentation that pinpoints performance requirements for the automated system. Unlike many systems integrators who expect their clients to define the technical or process issue(s) that require their assistance, automation design engineers work with their customers. Once they fully understand the issue(s), they thoroughly review the current system(s), develop the automation solution, and guide the client through its execution.
  • Assistance with bids to ensure the best solutions at the lowest price. By understanding what questions to ask, they can help the client avoid mistakes, delays, and cost overruns. This bid assist process also ensures that the proposed system will best meet the objectives and criteria of the master plan.
  • Experience and competency to oversee the integration and implementation of the automation system as well as a full understanding of how the system will function in totality with all manufacturing processes.
  • Experience with the design and implementation of multiple automation systems and platforms. A system of checks and balances to ensure that all variables are taken into consideration and all business requirements are met with implementation of the master plan.

Drilling Down into the Differences

Drilling Down into the Differences
Scope of Work
  • Tend to rely on the owner to provide direction regarding issue(s) resolution.
  • Support may be limited to owner input.
  • Tend to look beyond the issues and symptoms to understand the process and the root cause.
  • Support is broader, as they provide recommendations for overall process improvement versus problem resolution.
Design Approach
  • Generally limited to the specific product offering by the system integrator.
  • Collaboration is limited, generally falling to the owner’s responsibility to build consensus.
  • Broader experience with multiple automation platforms with holistic view and clarity regarding the intricacies and interrelationships between processes, facilities, facilities systems, and automation requirements.
  • Expertise in collaborating with multiple stakeholders including internal teams, vendors, and contractors.
Technology  and Equipment Needs
  • Limited to the capabilities and options inherent to the integrator’s product offering.
  • Experience with integrating the platform with an owner’s existing system may be limited if the existing system differs from the integrator’s product offering.
  • System neutrality leads to multiple options to consider and ultimately, the best possible solution (e.g., what will integrate quickly, contribute to efficiency, meet the company’s needs, and fall within budget).
  • Clear understanding of how multiple control platforms work together to streamline the execution of the automation installations and integration, including additional features and capabilities for future expandability.
  • Knowledge of how a proposed system will interact and function with an owner’s existing system.
cGMP Compliance
  • Familarity with rules, regulations, parameters, and codes inherent in cGMP compliance may vary depending on the system integrator. This can result in higher potential for failed inspections, qualifications, and validations, compliance violations, and higher costs.
  • Specific knowledge of regulatory requirements. They can ensure that the automation system meets all necessary safety and compliance guidelines and provide the required design documentation.
Expansive Network
of Services
  • Work with other architecture, engineering, and construction management (AEC); commissioning, qualification, and validation (CQV); and asset management companies that the client must hire independently.
  • Often work within a full-service AEC, CQV, and asset management company offering a comprehensive framework of services with a more collaborative, consolidated, and cost-effective approach.

Whether you hire a systems integrator or an automation design engineer, you need to evaluate your needs. Below are some questions to ask:

  • Does the firm have strong experience within the life sciences industry and with cGMP requirements?
  • What is the firm’s expertise, and specifically that of the personnel executing the work?
  • What level of customer service do you need? How responsive should your partner be?
  • Does the firm provide automation design services in-house, or will you need to outsource those services?
    • If I do need to outsource services, how do I ensure that all parties work together seamlessly and prevent gaps in the design?
  • Will the firm’s automation approach be forward thinking (e.g., aid in developing new products/expanding future manufacturing capacity)?
  • Does the firm have the industry experience and expertise with various automation platforms and software to select and specify the right solution for my facility?
  • Does the firm have experience throughout the project lifecycle—from planning and design to oversight and validation?
  • Is the firm able to consider potential site-wide impacts to the whole plant?
  • Does the firm have the design experience to integrate different platforms into a single solution?
  • Will the firm be able to ensure that the design meets all facility requirements and needs?

While systems integrators are essential in implementing the technical aspects of the automation system, an automation design engineer can ensure your project aligns with your business objectives, regulatory requirements, goals for operational efficiency, future growth, and cost containment/ROI.

About Genesis AEC

Genesis AEC – an award-winning consulting, architecture, engineering, and construction management firm – has partnered with life sciences companies for more than 25 years to complement the scientific expertise of our clients as they usher in the next generation of life-saving therapies, treatments, and technologies. Whether it’s providing AE support for existing sites; commissioning, validation, and qualification (CQV) for specific processes or equipment; or turnkey design-build solutions, our team blends sound science and technical expertise with quality assurance and safety measures to deliver unparalleled results.