Operational risks array themselves every day against process manufacturers and other industrial facilities. Capital budgets and personnel are stretched tight, yet companies strive to push productivity, efficiency and asset utilization rates to ever high levels—even as they ensure safety and compliance with fast-changing regulatory requirements. Automation has helped make it all possible in the first place. But there comes a time in every control system's life when it becomes part of the problem.
This week at Rockwell Automation's Process Solutions User Group (PSUG) meeting in Philadelphia, end users shared stories of their successful risk-management decision-making in the face of system obsolescence, and Rockwell Automation presenters shared the depth and breadth of tools and services they've developed to help manage that inevitable time when good automation systems begin to go bad.
Many of the control systems in current use were installed in the 1980s—or before—and are well past their envisioned services lives, according to Lonnie Morris, global product manager, Rockwell Automation, in his presentation to PSUG attendees. "The number of products becoming obsolete is huge," he acknowledged. "Obsolescence risk is a risk that you take—knowingly or unknowingly—by using products that no longer are supported or serviceable," Morris said.
A number of risk factors begin to escalate as automation products from any manufacturer move from the active production stage through what Rockwell Automation calls their "silver" stage (12-24 months of remaining production) to discontinued status, when repairs may be made, but replacement parts are not being manufactured. When a product has been discontinued, repair costs can exceed original hardware costs, and it gets harder to find subject-matter experts familiar with these systems, Morris explained. And it isn't just the advance of technology making products obsolete. Component supply chains are especially fragile, as diminishing demand, supplier mergers and failures, as well as regulatory requirements such RoHS take a toll on component availability.
If your plant is running on obsolete automation systems—parts-sourcing on eBay is one likely indication—it just might be time to undertake a more formal assessment of the risk that these systems pose. Morris recommends a three-phase process in which you first assess what systems you have; second, quantify and prioritize risks to the operation; and third, develop an appropriate mitigation/migration plan.
Assess then Plan
If you're dealing with manpower limitations or simply don't know where to start, an Installed Base Evaluation (IBE) from Rockwell Automation might be a good first step, according to Morris. "The IBE provides actionable intelligence to help you make data-driven decisions regarding your installed base of automation equipment assets," Morris said. This extensive analysis results in a red-yellow-green lifecycle coding of your entire automation base.
Once the operational risks to continuing operation have been properly identified, it's time to make a plan for moving forward. Rockwell Automation can help develop a mitigation plan designed to support elements deemed sufficiently "non-critical" through preventive maintenance and access to technical support and spares replacement and/or repair of legacy systems. "The goal is to develop an overall plan that will buy you time to implement your migration strategy," Morris said.
Even the decision to eliminate obsolescence risk by migrating off older technology isn't totally risk-free. Considerations then include such factors as necessary downtime, new code development, training, network compatibility, field wiring and disposal of legacy products. Among Rockwell Automation's strategies designed to help manage even these risks are "drop-in" replacement systems and tools for migrating from a range of competitive control systems. "Our phased, StepForward process includes a broad range of conversion enablers," Morris said. "It allows you to step forward without a massive capital outlay."