Justification for Modernizing Automation

Author photo: Craig Resnick
ByCraig Resnick
Industry Trends

ARC estimates that $65 billion worth of process automation systems are nearing the end of their useful life. These estimates are even larger if you include those installed systems that don’t meet the requirements for cybersecurity protection or enable technologies such as IIoT, cloud computing, advanced process control, mobile devices, social networks, advanced search engines, and big data analytics...all essential elements of the information-driven enterprise. 

Cost Justification Challenges

Automation end users are concerned with preserving their installed plant assets. Unfortunately, control systems and most other automation assets are run for many more years than IT and other non-manufacturing related assets.  At the same time, manufacturers have an enormous challenge with justifying the cost for automation upgrade projects. Arguments for modernizing automation range from being purely business decisions to critical issues that affect plant and worker safety.  An older system can hinder the adoption of available new technologies that provide real economic advantages, such as IIoT, cloud, software-as-a service, virtualization, analytics, IT/OT convergence, mobile devices, advanced process control, etc.  When it comes to maintenance, the older systems can be burdened with a high volume of custom code and custom point–to-point integration that make long term support cost prohibitive.  Replacement parts for older systems are also become increasingly difficult to obtain. 

Older systems can have opportunity cost implications for the manufacturing plant as well.  This is the cost of a business opportunity that was missed because the system was not advanced, flexible, or functional enough to take advantage of a swiftly emerging or fleeting opportunity.  Having old or outdated systems installed can result in direct losses if the manufacturer lacks the visibility into plant operations that enables them to prevent abnormal situations and avoid supply chain disruptions.  However, the case for modernizing automation is most urgent when the old system reaches the point where an impending plant shutdown or incident is a real possibility, threatening to cause unplanned downtime. Automation modernization projects are most likely to get approved if they can demonstrate direct support for any of the following four business drivers: plant efficiency, maintenance cost reduction, modifications and expansion, and safety and security.  Decision makers care about these business objectives because of their significant impact on the plant’s profitability.  

Automation Modernization Strategies

Good modernization strategies leverage proven tools and rely on solid project management to reduce downtime and minimize risk. When a manufacturer decides to take a proactive stance regarding its aging control system, the project can quickly become overwhelming.  Auditing the installed base makes it easy to discover varying degrees of maturity as well as multiple generations of products and operating systems, all running on a single process.  Systems evolve over time with modifications, upgrades, expansions, etc. that may not be well documented by the users.  Standards and regulations also evolve over time and the multi-generation installed base may not be uniformly synchronized to meet today’s and tomorrows’ regulatory requirements. The evaluation process needs to start with the desired end state in mind. Nobody is better qualified to discuss the future role of the manufacturing plant that is evaluating modernizing automation than the plant management and operators.  Not all parts of a legacy control system will necessarily need to be replaced, and the real challenge is flexibility in solutions that allow the manufacturer to preserve the assets worth keeping. Cost Justification Brochure

Over time, manufacturers have embedded intellectual knowledge into these systems through control configurations, integration with information management, historical data collection, and other applications to ensure that their automation systems performed the fundamental control job that it was purchased to do. There will be multiple evaluation criteria to consider for modernizing automation.  Often these criteria will not be clear, requiring tradeoffs.  When evaluating hardware, for example, it sometimes makes sense to keep the existing I/O modules because of the investment associated with the existing wiring.  For expansions, it may make sense to use newer technologies that reduce wiring requirements, such as wireless and/or fieldbus protocols.  For software, the benefits of migrating to new software include active cybersecurity support, better visualization and diagnostic capabilities leveraging wireless smart devices, seamless integration with business intelligence, production management, analytic software and database utilities; and enhanced communication interface functionalities employing  OPC UA, IIoT, SaaS, Cloud, etc.. For modernizing graphics and HMI devices, if operators are familiar with certain graphics, they are likely to view any modifications, such as adherence to ISA-101 standards, as a degradation of their system. This would be a case for preserving existing graphics or recreating them on a different platform. On the other hand, it may make sense to redesign the graphics in a scalable fashion to reflect changes in the plant and process, as well as to work with the wireless smart mobile devices that will also be utilized. It is important to involve the operators in this process to ensure ownership.

In conclusion, manufacturers should view modernizing automation in the same context as the selection process for a new system. The ideal system should enable focus on business objectives, continuous improvement, and operational excellence. Manufacturers today seek systems that have evolved to provide a single environment, spanning all realms of control disciplines from process to discrete automation and motion control, while also interacting with operations management applications.   Information must be provided in the right context, to the right person, at the right time, from any point in the system, and this can only happen by modernizing automation.

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