Automation’s current challenge: Finding opportunity in obsolescence
By Paul J. Galeski
It is no secret that many of our control systems are reaching their twilight years. For some, they are already there. According to one report, there are currently $65 billion worth of obsolete control systems worldwide, and that number is increasing every day.
This is especially true in oil and gas, a sector that is quickly outgrowing the various upgrades and modifications that have been made to its aging systems over the years. But the term “upgrades” is a misnomer here, as the intention is simply to maintain—not improve—basic operational functionality. These manufacturers continue to refurbish obsolete systems with the hope of squeezing another year or two out of them. Though the goal is cost savings, ultimately this approach is the least efficient and most costly. Significant downtime is inevitable when the system completely breaks down.
But breakdowns are not the only concern. Obsolescence is. With the ever-increasing velocity of change in manufacturing, it is becoming more and more clear that the old way is no longer the only path forward. In fact, it is a dead end. To keep up with the evolving automation landscape, we have to approach obsolescence as an opportunity for operational improvement and cost reduction. An opportunity to innovate rather than replicate. An opportunity for American manufacturers to regain their competitive edge.
Different approaches to DCS and PLC migration
Rip and replace
When a control system begins to outlive its usefulness, isolating failed parts and replacing them with new ones is a common approach. But what begins as required maintenance quickly becomes overextension. Systems running above their design capacity reduce operational efficiency. This means the cost savings from replacing a part rather than the entire system are not just nullified; they are actually reversed. You might think you are saving money, but you are actually losing more of it than you think due to production inefficiencies.
Fully leverage and innovate
Proactive manufacturers do not wait for process downtime to force their hand. They have migration strategies in place before the system begins to lag. They bring in outside vendors to demonstrate new technology and systems integrators for unbiased support and expertise. They conduct front-end loading (FEL) studies to identify opportunities for improvement. They do not just look to get by; they look to get ahead.
Make the most of this opportunity
Perhaps you have already begun to consider migrating your distributed control system (DCS) or programmable logic controller (PLC) system. Or perhaps your system is on its last leg, and you are worried about downtime once it fails completely. Either way, if you want to remain competitive—or regain your competitive edge—waiting is not an option in today's manufacturing landscape.
Conduct FEL studies to determine how efficiencies built into your new system can help you recoup the costs of migration sooner than you think. Take what you learn to make a case for the capital you will need to move forward. Collaborate with systems integration experts to determine the best path forward. And, above all, start today.