Mitigating Automation Technology Risks

Operating legacy technology beyond obsolescence is a common choice for manufacturers, but the choice should be calculated. With a clear view of the technology and business challenges to come, you can create the quantitative and qualitative connections necessary to prove ROI or reduced losses. Mitigation plans should address four primary areas of risk:

  1. Preventative maintenance
  2. Access to legacy technical support
  3. Spare replacement & legacy repair
  4. On-going management of obsolete hardware/technology status

Preventative Maintenance

Many manufacturers have been operating with PLCs and VFDs that are 20 years or older. While the lifespan of these rugged hardware components seems infinite, we know that they are reaching the end of the life (EOL) and will break down with increasing frequency in the near future. Serviceability is already a challenge and replacement parts have become increasingly limited. Many manufacturers will say they already do preventative maintenance and save the old hardware to scrap parts for the repair of other obsolete components in the plant. But when push comes to shove, these tasks are reactive due to time, resources, and budget constraints. Reprioritizing can work, but outsourcing to a third party help should also be a consideration.

Is Upgrading Your Old Equipment Worth It?

New machines can provide everything you need in terms of performance, but the price tags can be inhibitive. The good news is that old machines aren’t necessarily bad machines. Sometimes, replacing components and improving the programming can make old machines look, feel and perform like a new one, but for a fraction of the cost. As a senior engineer for the past 10 years, I’ve helped design and install new lines, reprogram machines and manage projects from start to finish. With the right people, you might want to consider machine upgrades before a replacement.

A Machine Modification Might be the Best Option

I recently re-programmed old machines for a major personal health product manufacturer’s distribution center. The machine modifications and upgrades ran into the millions, but it was half the cost of new machines. Despite the differences in cost, the performance, safety and usability with the upgraded old machines would be equal or better to new machines.

The client had everything to gain if the project was successful, but if it didn’t work, they would incur the cost of the project and the cost of buying new machines with potential delays. Fortunately, we had an existing relationship and they believed we had the competency to follow up on our promises.

Working with Existing Lines

Working with an existing line is like walking on a tightrope. Since the machines are in use, you can’t shut the lines down. Safety modifications and hardware swaps have to be done within very precise windows of time. There isn’t any wiggle room. Also, since you can’t program the machines from scratch, you have to work within legacy or obsolete code structures. The code needs to be examined, simulated, modified and then tested before the machine is back to peak efficiency. There are many points in a project like this that could lead to failure.

Due to the predictability of the hardware upgrades, software modifications are the Achilles’ heel of machine modifications. Old code requires extensive analysis and testing before it is ready to be rolled out with modifications. Even after launch, operational code needs to be closely monitored and fixed.

Hard Work, Solid Results

After long hours, scribbling notes on paper towels and extensive testing, we made the code operational, but just getting the machine to work wasn’t our goal. We set out to improve the machines’ production speed and we accomplished 98% efficiency on a machine that was over 30 years old.

The machine upgrade project was a success. We improved safety, installed new electrical panels and added a host of new features. The 4 new 3D HMI’s with flush fittings and a new paint job made the dinosaurs look like new Ferraris without shutting down the line.

The Handoff

Machines are only as good as their operators. To insure a smooth transition, we provided media rich training manuals giving the operators a two week training period before manning the helm.

If you are looking to make an investment in your line, we can provide you with detailed options that might include machine upgrades. You can compare the cost of your inefficiencies to the gains generated by potential investments and make the best decision for your business.

Planning for Spare Replacement and Legacy Repair Support

Even with the right plan and highly skilled operators, you still need the right hardware for the automation of the lines. The lack of availability for spare parts unnecessarily extends downtime. While a practice to inventory obsolete hardware to use as parts for other obsolete hardware is a tightrope. It is an unsustainable situation. Eventually, the inventory will run out.

Surprisingly, eBay has become a source for industrial hardware. We’ve seen maintenance technicians who have been desperate enough to put everything on the line by using eBay to purchase obsolete hardware for replacement or spare parts. The challenge is that with obsolete hardware, you are operating on borrowed time. Again, if in-house resources are thin, outsourcing to a third party is a worthwhile investment.

Managing Obsolescence Status

All hardware/software technologies have a planned obsolescence and will eventually come to the end of life and end of service. The mitigation process is a cycle that begins with a thorough audit to effectively monitor risk and create a plan for migration. A database would centralize this information and identify internal subject matter experts who can be held responsible for collecting and maintaining lifecycle information. Many manufacturers don’t have a resource specifically for hardware/software lifecycle monitoring, but it is important for a competitive market position that this information becomes a critical factor in the sustainability of your operational excellence. Third party vendors, suppliers and integrators can help you develop a strategy that will save you time and money for planning, maintaining, training, warehousing and monitoring your technologies.

For more details, download our Obsolescence Webinar.