Manufacturing System Controls
Prism Systems has been an Alabama pioneer in systems automation and control software. Its customers range from oil and gas, telecommunications and food and beverage to chemical, pulp and paper and energy.
Solving problems by making hardware smarter with software is a Prism specialty.
Todd Hassel, the business development manager of Prism Systems Inc., swings open the front panel of a vending machine, exposing its inner workings. He points to a small switchboard and explains how the device can turn an old vending machine “smart,” capable of transmitting information about its inventory and consumers’ habits directly to its operator. Rather than pay a number of drivers to service every machine, Hassel explains, the data can be delivered “for a nominal monthly subscription.”
Here, at the company’s Research and Development Lab near downtown Mobile, Hassel is in his element.
“My role is education,” Hassel says. “It’s trying to tell people who we are, what we do and how we can help.”
For a company like Prism Systems, whose services are not only extremely technical but applicable across an endless range of industries, Hassel’s role is indispensable.
In the company’s own words, Prism Systems “provides world-class systems design and integration services to Fortune 500 companies and solutions targeted for industrial manufacturing markets.”
But what exactly does that mean?
“A lot of what we get involved in is not very sexy,” Hassel admits.
Sexy or not, the projects that Prism undertakes can have enormous real-world ramifications, whether it’s partnering with a state agency to find a way to ease traffic congestion, writing the software that operates cargo ships or programming the assembly line that makes your favorite soft drink. In this way, the Alabama-based company affects your day-to-day life in ways you’ve never considered.
In short, people come to Prism Systems with a problem, and as Hassel succinctly explains, “They pay us to figure it out.”
Company President Keith Jones founded Prism Systems in 1989 as a three-man software development company, creating graphical interfaces for control systems. Within four years, the company had moved into creating the control systems themselves.
“A control system,” Vice President Alex Lynch explains, “is the program inside an industrial controller, which actually causes things to happen.” These systems are what operate machinery on a plant floor. They run conveyor belts, churn motors, turn lights on and off.
“We implement software for manufacturing processes,” Jones says. “We’ve helped make everything from candy bars to tampons to parts of a space shuttle. We work for pretty much any kind of industry. And we get to do some cool stuff.” He cites projects with a rum distillery in Trinidad, a power plant in Haiti and gas plants in Africa.
Today, Prism is a company of 58 employees, evenly split between software development and control systems.
The range of industries in which the company operates is mind-boggling, having made a name for itself in entertainment, oil and gas, telecommunications, food and beverage, chemical, pulp and paper, and energy. Jones explains that Prism isn’t intimidated to take on a new industry and, thus, a new challenge.
“We focus on technology,” Jones says. “It doesn’t matter to us what [the client’s] making.” Clients, he says, often want assurance that a company like Prism has prior experience in their specific industry.
“But we don’t really think that way,” Jones says. “We think technology. We know how to program the devices, and they just need to tell us how they want their stuff to work.”
To get the job done, Prism uses hardware from a number of global control technology suppliers. It is a certified provider of automation for Siemens, Rockwell/Allen-Bradley, Foxboro and Bristol-Babcock, among many others. “We own the software to program the hardware to do what it’s supposed to do,” Hassel explains.
If there’s one word in mind when the engineers at Prism sit down to solve a problem, it’s “efficiency.” By coming up with targeted solutions to manufacturing headaches, Prism can drastically cut its clients’ production costs, as is illustrated by the company’s work in the fast food industry.
Prism recently partnered with a high-profile fast food chain and is working toward smart energy management at future restaurants. For example, if the data shows a consistent lull in orders placed on a particular day of the week at a particular time, the technology will suggest running only one cooker rather than three during that timeframe.
“We’re adding intelligence,” Hassel explains.
Although the energy saved at one location might seem minimal, multiply that by the 19,000 worldwide restaurants at 365 days a year, and the technology’s impact is enormous. And therein lies the beauty of Prism Systems.
As for the company’s reach, the vast majority of Prism’s business occurs outside of Alabama.
“We don’t limit ourselves to geographical regions,” Lynch says; Prism has developed technology in more than 30 countries and just about every state. But that’s not to say the company hasn’t done its fair share of work in Alabama and around the Gulf Coast.
“Maybe 20 percent of our work is what we consider a ‘one-tank trip,’” Hassel says, referencing the distance one tank of gas will carry you from Mobile. Such one-tank projects include wastewater treatment, automotive production, soft drink bottling and a contract with a state transportation department that upgraded the automation and controls running the systems for a highway tunnel.
That last contract demonstrates the company’s willingness to expand into unfamiliar territory.
“We didn’t know anything about traffic when we started,” Hassel says.
Second, the example illustrates that much of Prism’s success comes through referrals. Whether that means securing further work within a particular company or being led into different industries by word-of-mouth referrals, Prism operates in a relationship business.
“Often our customers take us with them when an engineer moves from one company to another,” Lynch says. “That takes us into new industries. Referrals are very, very strong. We don’t advertise very much.”
As for the future of Prism Systems, Hassel says that the journey is half the fun.
“We’ve got some really talented people,” he says. “We spent a lot of time interviewing to make sure we’ve got the right people on the bus. And then we figure out where we’re going.”
In recent years, the company has opened supporting offices, one in Birmingham and one in Glendale, California, but Jones is cautious about further growth.
“We’ve had very slow and controlled growth,” he says. “In our industry, our size now, the 50 to 100 engineers, is sort of a sweet spot for what we do. You get much bigger than that … it’s harder to control.”
If Jones is certain about anything, it’s that the industry is changing.
“Right now, 23 percent of manufacturing companies are embracing smart manufacturing,” and Jones says that in the next several years, that number will only increase.
“They’re actually calling this a fourth Industrial Revolution, and it’s changing how stuff is being made.”
Breck Pappas and Todd Douglas are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Pappas, based in Mobile, is a senior writer for Mobile Bay Magazine; Douglas is based in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.