3D Modeling/Simulation Company Looking to gain System Integration Competency

  • I work for a company who's does 90% of our work as 3D modeling and manufacturing simulation services. In recent years, we've had more and more clients asking for robot simulations in the conceptual stage of planning automation cells. Eventually we found ourselves doing offline-programming for clients and are now being asked frequently if we have the capability to do full system integration work (we cannot).

    While we are mostly, desk jockeys, we do have a beater robot we've messed around with for a few years (arc welding, milling). We are now considering if we should pursue system integration capabilities. We are just starting to consider what this would look like and have very basic questions I'm hoping to get some help with here.

    So my questions to the forum are:

    - What would be the basic steps you'd take to enter this discipline?

    - What kind of training would be helpful? I understand each manufacturer offers training in a number of areas (programming, operation, maintenance,...). Should these be regarded as essential training?

    - Beyond stand alone training courses offered, there are also certification programs. Are those worth pursuing as a new player? In terms of developing the required skills/knowledge, does the training covered in the certification process differ from the stand alone courses?

    Thank you all in advance for the guidance and help! Cheers.

    • Helpful

    Whoooo... that's a deep can of worms.

    You'll need an entire build crew -- millwrights, electricians, pipefitters, PLC/controls programmers, and "hands on" robot programmers (as opposed to sim jockeys). And these aren't just "knuckle draggers" -- you'll need competent people at least as team leaders in all those fields.

    (depending on your local jursidiction, you'll probably be legally required to have at least one licensed Master Electrician at minimum, or have one on contract -- you'll be working with some very hazardous voltages)

    You'll also need office-side people who can handle translating from the design&sim world into hardware -- creating BOMs, dealing with machine shops, designing electrical systems to spec and meeting safety requirements. And creating assembly drawings for the shop floor (and updating those drawings to meet reality once the floor crew fixes design errors -- that's what you need competent "wrench-benders" for).

    Your payroll department will also have to start dealing more with sending people on the road -- if you're an integrator, you'll need to send people to do installs, startup support, and warranty support. That includes travel expenses that your current payroll department may not have experience with.

    Now for the good news: this is all doable, since people have done it before. If you're in an area that has integrators, then there's likely to be contracting houses you can hire experienced labor from (and possibly headhunt some team leaders). Given how automation integration work tends to ebb and flow, a large portion of the "blue collar" part of the workforce tends to float around between integrators -- in an automation center of gravity like the greater Detroit area, it's normal to find people who have worked for nearly every integrator in the region over time, and now boss people they used to work for. That end of the business can be very fluid, but the cream of the crop often end up becoming "in house" employees in every way but the paperwork -- I've had team leaders who had been with the company as contractors for so long, only HR knew they weren't actually employees.

    If you can tap into some experienced labor, they can often give you leads on more people who are good to hire (or not). Thanks to the circulation, the business can be pretty small-town-ish -- everybody knows everybody else, or knows someone who does. Word-of-mouth reputation carries.

    Now, all that said, you'll want to choose your customers, and projects, carefully, especially while you're starting up. Becoming a sub-contractor to a larger integrator might be worth considering, especially if you have a pre-existing relationship with your sim work. Obviously, don't start on a 500-robot factory for Ford. There's also so many different tasks for robots, you'll want to pick a specialty to start with: welding, material handling, spray, etc. And a general industry range -- food-related work can be very different than automotive, which is different from aerospace, etc.

    Picking a particular robot and PLC brand to concentrate on, to start with, would be good. Most integrators end up using multiple brands because of customer demand, but have their maximum competency in one particular brand. That choice will probably have to be tied into the industry you want to start in -- North American automotive leans heavily (but not exclusively) into Fanuc and Allen-Bradley, but most aerospace work I've seen leans towards Siemens controls and KUKA or ABB robots.

    Most brands will offer "certified integrator" badges that you can add to your advertising, but you'll have to find the requirements for each one on a case-by-case basis. You'll want to form a good working relationship with your selected brands, or the local distributor/support for your selected brands.

    Training... well, you should never stop training. Even in one single robot or PLC brand, there's more different options and training courses than you could use in a lifetime, and they keep rolling out new ones (and obsoleting old ones). Keeping up is important, but it's also important not to try taking All The Classes for stuff you might not ever use (or worse, don't use for so long you have to take the course again). So, again, it's about your chosen industry -- find the most-used options for that industry, train some people in them, and have them use those skills regularly. Maybe select certain persons to attend shows or open-houses to stay abreast of the new options so you at least know what's in the pipeline and might be relevant.

    Safety: you'll want to build a safety culture in your shop, and get the appropriate training -- get at least one person read in on the RIA safety specs, and the applicable OSHA standards, and the NEC (there's probably more than that). You'll have dangerous high-pressure air, high-voltage electrics, and automation that can easily start/stop without warning -- fatalities in this business are pretty rare, thank God, but only b/c most people, most of the time, follow most of the safety best practices. injuries, OTOH... I've been in some shops where it seemed like sheer luck that people weren't getting killed weekly.

  • I worked with a lot of companies that start out the same way, by doing contract controls integration. They can do panel builds and basic PLC programming, and anything mechanical that they need done is contracted out to another integrator. This would be a good way to get your feet wet, and also get your foot in the door for future costumers. Panels can be built and tested in house, you would need someone to install everything onsite, but most of the wiring that needs to be done onsite is not high voltage, and won't need a certification to do.

    Another big ticket item for small integrators is upgrades. Every shop in the US will have equipment that is more than 20+ years old. They have panels full of obsolete parts that the manufacturer no longer supports, and the costumer can't get spare parts for. Most manufacturers have white pages for what parts have gone obsolete and what parts have replaced it. It won't always be as simple as swapping the parts out, but it is relatively straight forward and there is a lot of documentation on it.

    Robots are very powerful automation tools, but it would be hard to jump straight into robot jobs first thing. Robots are the center piece of an entire system that needs a lot of support. Mechanical teams need to design the frame, tooling, harnesses, and dressouts for the robot. Usually a PLC and HMI to handle all the processing for your sensors, and communication to other systems. There is a lot that goes into robot integration. But there are some integrators that contract out specifically for robots, so it isn't impossible to break into integration from a purely robot background.

  • Wow. This has been very eye-opening. Thank you Muteki and Skyefire for the thoughtful responses. This gives us a lot to think about and provides a lot of context for us to start strategizing how we'd go about this.

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