When Is the Right Time to Consider Control System Migration?

By Dick Hill

Industry Trends

Control System Migration is not Just about Technology

Even with the Digitization trends it’s still difficult to justify capital spending on automation.  Justification may be as simple as replacing a “mission-critical” automation system following a catastrophic event but more likely it should begin with an assessment based on the current business value versus potential.  In most cases, justification supports a business initiative with definable requirements.  These projects have capital expenditure ROI targets and are intended to satisfy a unique set of key performance indicators (KPIs).  Some businesses have evolved their KPIs into a “balanced scorecard” as a convention.  If the company had not previously institutionalized performance measurements, this would be a good place to start.

End users must focus in on getting the most out of their installed assets from several viewpoints.  Any automation project today requires a compelling business case.  ARC has identified several scenarios where migration is required.  Like other capital assets, automation assets have a lifecycle.  At the end of that lifecycle, it becomes necessary to plan and execute a control system migration.  Any or all of the following situations can mark the end of the lifecycle:

  1. Reliability Issues: Poor reliability threatens operational continuity and threats can emerge in two ways. 
    1. Basic repair: frequency and criticality of failures.  An increase can indicate the end of the lifecycle.
    2. End of Support: Suppliers regularly obsolete or replace products with functional equivalents, or in the worst case, their businesses fail.  Any of these can trigger the need for end-of-life planning.
  2. Unsupportable Opportunity: The capability of automation assets inevitably erodes over time and legacy assets often cannot satisfy new business opportunities.  Many times, these opportunities become evident when functional requirements expand beyond fundamental manufacturing.  When the existing automation cannot satisfy these new requirements, it may be time to consider migrating to automation assets that can. 

Of course, the case for migration is most urgent when the old system reaches the point where an unscheduled plant shutdown or incident is a real possibility.  The system may be so old that replacement parts and support are unavailable or extremely limited and cost prohibitive.  The old system may not support many of the available new technologies that provide real economic advantages, such as analytics applications, IIoT-enabled devices (Industrial Internet of Things), advanced production management applications, and the Cloud. 

Even worse, the old system can be burdened with a high volume of custom code and custom point–to-point integration that make long-term support cost prohibitive, as companies struggle with shrinking labor resources and a lack of qualified personnel.  The veteran who understood all the custom code in place (probably because he/she wrote it), will retire and be replaced by a worker who knows only open technologies and standards. 

Of even greater importance is the opportunity cost associated with supporting an outdated system.  This is the cost of a business opportunity missed when your system does not have the capability and/or flexibility to take advantage of a swiftly emerging or fleeting opportunity.  In these instances, an old or outdated system can result in lost business.  This is especially true if the end user lacks the visibility into plant operations that enables him or her to prevent abnormal situations and avoid supply chain disruptions.  An inflexible system hinders the ability to react quickly to shifts in market demand. 

Control System Migrations Start with a Strategic Process

Developing the correct strategy for a control system migration is a strategic team process.  The team should have a good understanding of the issues, a sense of urgency, balanced judgment, critical technical knowledge, and the respect of peers and management alike.  Team members should be chosen not only as decision makers, but also as the “doers” that will ultimately follow through on the decisions made. 

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The team members need to understand their mission and feel empowered by management to complete it successfully.  To ensure successful implementation, they must first feel an obligation to make decisions that optimize the corporation’s performance; and, second, secure the support of their peers by conveying an understanding of the rationale.  The team should not be any larger than it needs to be to satisfy the pre-ceding requirements.  Generally, a team of six to eight people is a good size, but this is not an absolute. 

We have to stress that the team’s participation may be required for all phases of the strategic process.  This is not only because the team makes the process work, but also because the comprehensive team deliverable is a strategy document that serves as a basis for the process and a mechanism for making the control system migration successful. 

The dynamics begin with the team discussing the mission statement provided by management.  The purpose of these discussions is to trans-late the mission statement into the team’s vision statement.  This is where the team begins to forge its identity and take ownership of the project.  The vision statement also provides a natural segue into defining justification and quantifying measurements for success. 

The team comes together with a common understanding of the problems and challenges it faces during discussions establishing current reality.  The insight the team members bring to the problems associated with the strategic process comes from their common experiences.  The challenges the team members face derive from the vision and justification upon which they have just agreed.  This largely defines the problem to be solved. 

The next logical step is for a consultant or expert in the focus area to present the possibilities.  This should be a learning experience for the team in which it is challenged to consider both a range of current solutions and a roadmap to its ultimate solution.  If the team finds every-thing in the consultant’s presentation acceptable, then either he or she has not been forward thinking enough, or the team is not being conservative enough.  The team must use its collective knowledge to create a target solution that is rational and reasonable.  With the problem and solution in hand, the team should be able to establish the filters or high-level criteria necessary to select the correct path to a solution. 

Definition extends the high-level criteria to the details associated with each class of automation.  Definition presents the largest threat to team dynamics and overall project success of all the phases of the strategic project.  ARC feels it is not reasonable to expect the team members, who are experts in manufacturing processes, to also be experts in the details associated with the hardware and software they must choose.  It is more important for the team to understand the range of technology and functional choices available and the merits of each, so it can make thoughtful decisions about which best satisfy its requirements.  Requiring the team to become immersed in the myriad technical details would get in the way of it determining the best available solution from a business perspective. 

Team members will always bring individual preferences and prejudices to the process.  The best practice for addressing this issue is to utilize a structured, highly consistent criteria weighting and solution rating tool.  This approach minimizes decisions based on emotion and allows the team to collaborate more openly based on knowledge and facts.  Healthy team dynamics will ensure an understandable, supported, and correct strategy.  

How to Learn More

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