How to Deal with System Obsolescence

Process Industry Panelists Discuss Migration Challenges

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"Rip and replace is a last resort. It means you've either not been keeping up with technology or relationships with your supplier have broken down." Paul Stewart was suitably blunt in his dismissal of wholesale replacement as a viable means of dealing with obsolete control systems.

At the November 2012 Honeywell Users Group EMEA meeting in Istanbul, Stewart, of Marathon Oil in the U.K., joined Paul Anderson of Saudi Aramco, Mahdi Akbar of EQUATE Petrochemical, Keith Landells of BP, and Andy Coward of Honeywell Process Solutions to discuss how the process industries are dealing with the large number of process control systems that currently are approaching the end of their useful lives. David Humphrey of the ARC Advisory Group moderated the panel.

Functionality Seldom a Driver

While a phased approach to migrating from older systems to newer technology is preferred, the panelists agreed it's often difficult to determine just when and how to make that switch. "Some of the really old systems are still very reliable," noted BP's Keith Landells. "That's part of the problem."

"Engineers want the latest and greatest, but management is looking at costs," added Saudi Aramco's Jim Anderson. "Very seldom is the driver enhanced functionality. Many of our current systems were installed in the 1980s and 1990s to replace single loop controllers and are reaching the end of their useful lives," he said. "But it all comes down to whether we can continue to operate reliably and safely. Can we continue to get the parts, the training? The savings you get by delaying a capital expenditure is significant."

Obsolescence and reliability — not new functionality — are the key modernization drivers, agreed Stewart. "It's really hard with electronics, with systems that have been operating for 20-30 years. How long can they reasonably be expected to run? We take advantage of added features and functionalities when we upgrade, but it's not the reason."

COTS Complications

A double-edged sword inherent in today's process control systems is the pervasive use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computing technology. And while leveraging commercial IT developments makes possible a broad swath of advanced functionality, maintaining an automation infrastructure for 20 or more years based on component technologies intended to be superseded in three years, presents a significant and ongoing issue, the panelists said.

For its part, Honeywell Process Solutions has committed to providing its customers with an evolutionary path forward from its extensive installed base of older systems, even as it pioneers new advances in control system technology, according to Andy Coward of Honeywell. "Keeping up with the pace of COTS technology is a real challenge. Some customers want the latest technologies, and some want to wait until new releases are stable," Coward said. "We have to respond to a wide range of customer desires, even within the same company, between IT and control system groups. We work with our key suppliers like Microsoft to make sure we're ready to meet those needs."

Virtualization is but the latest COTS technology to be appropriated from the commercial IT space and is having a significant impact on how many control system applications are deployed and maintained. "Anything that simplifies the system is a good thing," said BP's Landells, "and separating the hardware from the software is one."

And while virtualization has proven effective in consolidating and separating hardware maintenance from the upkeep of operating systems and applications, Mahdi Akbar of EQUATE Petrochemical expressed concern that the virtualization environment might one day present its own maintenance demands. "Will the virtualization platform become just another operating system?" he asked.

People Issues

And while system migration and modernization presents undeniable technical challenges, neglect the human aspects at your own peril, the panelists said. "Training and work processes, hardware and software: they all play into the feasibility of an online migration," said Honeywell's Coward. Up front, it's important to do role and complexity assessments so that the new displays support what operators need to do, Coward said. "It's not technology, it's not usability – it's managing change."

"Most of the people 'gotchas' are expected," agreed BP's Landells, who likened operator adoption of a new control system to the inevitable learning curve of a new mobile phone. "It always takes a while to figure out how to work it, how to be proficient. And it's usually a younger member of the family that shows me how," he confessed. "We know change is going to be a big issue, that there will always be push back, and we do the best we can."

"The best way to gain operator acceptance is to involve them from the very beginning," added EQUATE's Akbar.

"If they understand why they have to change, they're much more likely to embrace it," said Marathon Oil's Stewart. "The needed skills are changing – especially with the use of IT technology," he added. "We need to have them work together and for each to learn each other's domain."

The difficulties inherent in keeping older control systems running, and in determining the proper migration timing needed to head off reliability and obsolescence problems, also is reshaping the terms under which users engage with their technology suppliers. Saudi Aramco, for one, has been including 10 years of software updates and hardware refreshes in the bid processes for its control system investments, said Anderson.

A core deliverable of Honeywell Process Solutions is plant availability, added Honeywell's Coward. "We used to sell boxes and support – now we're selling outcomes."

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