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The systems-integrator edge.

The competitive advantage a system integrator can offer--increased quality, shorter product-development cycles, faster response time, etc--depends in large part on your choice of who you team up with. Although more and more companies are realizing the strategic link between information integration and business success, few know specifically what characterizes a "great" systems integrator.

Systems integration is the selection and linking of information technology to create a complete information-processing system, one that meets manufacturing functional requirements and corporate business objectives. Integrating hardware, software, communications networks, and operations personnel will eliminate duplicate systems, unify computer environments, and create a more efficient and cost-effective business atmosphere. It consists of two parts: developing a technology strategy and implementation methodology. It is the foundation for managing information technology and taking advantage of change.

More than a vendor

The systems integrator is more than just a vendor. The good ones function as partners. They are there from a project's inception and are still there once it's up and running. They also provide training, day-to-day support, and systems enhancements when needs change.

Integrators can allow you to free up your personnel to focus on what they do best. Few manufacturers have both the time and internal expertise to integrate disparate technologies. An integrator can bring first-hand experience with a multitude of hardware, software, and communications technologies. EDS, for example, works with over 6000 vendors. This gives us the ability to assembly the right mix of technology, be it three, ten, or 100 varied products to satisfy a business need.

Most manufacturers don't have the man time or financial resources to search through this maze of available technology, whereas an integrator not only knows these technologies, but how to make them work together. They often enter into strategic relationships with vendors and even influence the future direction of their technologies.

Any manufacturer would prefer to deal with a general contractor, rather than individual vendors. In most cases, the account manager is the single point of responsibility and accountability, day after day, drawing on expertise from his or her team of experienced systems engineers and other technical support.

Not all are created equal

But all systems integrators are not alike. Today, hundreds call themselves systems integrators, some big, many small. A few have years of experience, others are just starting out. Many are manufacturers themselves, others only consultants.

With this tremendous variety, remember there are big advantages to working with systems integrators who are hardware independent, free from pressure to push a particular line of hardware or software. They are motivated only by your functional and business needs. They can pick and chose among available technologies, and recommend the systems your need, not those they have to sell.

Vision and understanding

What makes systems integrators great? Seeing the big picture, paying particular attention to each crucial step from a project's beginning to its support, many years later. To start, they must have a true understanding of the business objectives and the role information technology must play. That includes understanding your business model, and, when it's absent, being able to create one.

They must also be able to formulate an information model. We often find that a company doesn't have an information plan or a clear idea of how it supports the business plan. This is not simply how many widgets you produce yearly or your market share, but how your business operates from an information-movement perspective. A good systems integrator helps you understand information flow.

Next, an integrator must select and implement a structured methodology to ensure development progress. At EDS, we use our Systems Life Cycle program. It is a time-tested approach to systems design, development, implementation, and on-going support.

Developing functional requirements go hand-in-hand with a comprehensive understanding of existing processes--whether manual or automatic--as well as an understanding of what's needed. This leads to the migration plan and the selection of hardware, software, and communications tools consistent with your current infrastructure.

Test before it's too late

An integrator should test at all phases of a program, even while specifications are being developed. Testing of the architecture should include hardware and communication links. A prudent integrator uses simulation and emulation. EDS, in one case, simulated a proposed communications path and found that some of the hardware could't handle the job. An upgrade of some of the hardware was required. Simulation and emulation is crucial before going to the tremendous expense of integrating systems on the factory floor.

Training is important to successfully integrate people with new technology. A systems developer has lived with a new system. Those who will use it haven't. Effective training must include complete documentation, trouble-shooting guides, and manuals on implementation, operation, and maintenance. They must all speak the same language. An operations manual can't use one vocabulary and a maintenance manual another.

Alpha and beta testing must be limited--too much can cloud results. Another pointer: after testing, the customer should listen to the physical results, not the system developers.

The final test of an integrator is being able to evaluate systems implementation and question whether the system truly supports corporate objectives. One more recommendation: look for an integrator with a global presence. Companies with global aspirations need as few barriers as possible and greater access to data and information. An integrator with a global presence can help remove unnecessary impediments across both industry and international lines.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:manufacturing
Author:Hyduk, S.J.
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:May 1, 1991
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