As control system integrators, we hear stories all the time about issues and pain points that processing facilities are enduring, many seeing no light at the end of the tunnel in terms of a solution. Many of these issues can be traced back to the condition of the facility's control system. We often ask potential clients what it would take for their company to invest in removing these pain points. Sometimes they aren't sure. Other times, they are seeking someone that will help them uncover that answer. The plant representatives we visit with often have an understanding of their greatest problem areas. But simply having awareness of a problem, regardless at which level within the organization, does little to actually drive change.
One of the greatest obstacles that facility managers and system integrators alike run into is that plant executives often know little about the current reality or physical condition, and sometimes dilapidation, of the control system running their facility. They recognize symptoms of a problem, such as increased frequency of unplanned downtime or lack of throughput compared to a sister facility or competitor. Perhaps they realize that their system lacks robust track-and-trace capabilities, or maybe quality issues have begun to surface. Regardless of which it is, in the process of recovering from an incident (such as downtime) teams put all their energy into getting the plant back online. While in the heat of the issue, they know they should be more proactive. They may even vow to themselves that they "will never let this happen again." But the system is brought back online, daily operations steal their attention, and they settle back into the false comfort that things are operating smoothly.
If any of this sounds at all familiar, it's time to take heed. Processing plants frequently have no plan in place or have no realistic ideas for improvements and upgrades.
When discussing a potential project with a client, we often hear something like "we know it's bad (old, antiquated, etc.); we just don't know how bad." They know something is needed in order to get the plant operating efficiently again. However, at the same time, any solution presented has to get through the capital approval process, and we're all well aware of how difficult that can be at times. Ultimately facilities need a solution that they can get funding to implement; and this is commonly how the cycle starts. The plant moves forward with a temporary solution that is quick or cheap (or both) to avoid further downtime or dealing with a long approval process. A band-aid is placed on the situation in order to move forward. Then something else happens, and the process is repeated. Before you know it, band-aids are everywhere.
If you recognize this situation, the question begging to be asked is, "How long will your company continue to implement temporary solutions, barely getting by, instead of digging in and solving the real issue?" There is a point at which more mud and straw creates a bigger mess. It's time to break the patch-and-cover cycle for your facility.
Before going further, let's agree for purposes of this discussion on a definition for the term band-aid or what might constitute a repair being given that sort of classification. Anything that includes requiring the purchase of used parts due to aging equipment or replacing products that a manufacturer no longer produces/supports would be a band-aid. A "quick fix" might be replacing an I/O card or PC that frequently locks up. Maybe you're working on an old network infrastructure that is slow or offers limited functionality; any maintenance done on this system would likely be considered a band-aid. Additionally, almost any time your upgrade involves putting forth the least amount of effort or moving forward with the most inexpensive option to get back up and running, only delaying the inevitable, would definitely be regarded as a band-aid and should be considered as a last resort rather than a first option.
The last thing we would suggest is a complete rip-and-replace of the control system each time a minor issue arises. However, too often companies will go the route of a temporary solution because "that's what we do every time something like this happens." Think about your company's philosophy and procedures for updating equipment and systems. Do you have formal migration plans in place for your existing hardware or software systems? Is your team thinking ahead, or have you adopted the mantra of "we'll fix it when it breaks?" Being proactive about your facility's infrastructure and having migration plans in place will eliminate a great array of problems and questions, not to mention a few headaches, when issues do arise, and often before they become a major concern.
Let's look at the process a facility might follow to evaluate an upgrade to its existing system.
- Awareness of the symptoms and their effect.
- Internal acknowledgement of a problem.
- Internal conversations regarding known options for improvement.
- Discussions with trusted peers, research further options.
- Q&A sessions with existing control system provider or integrator or peer-referred integrator.
- Conference calls or site visits with control systems integrator or vendor (or both).
- Engagement of a control systems and/or electrical engineer to evaluate current electrical and control system.
- Evaluation of recommendations from engineering studies.
- Choice of a direction and develop a project budget.
- Implementation of the project.
The evaluation step is the decisive moment. This is where a systems integrator has most concern for the customer. Typically you'll have three options from which to choose after evaluating your current system: a complete retrofit of the system; another temporary solution; or refrain from doing anything at all.
Doing nothing and simply living with the problem is rarely the correct move. While a temporary solution may seem logical because it is cheaper in terms of initial capital expense, be wary of the long-term effects of that decision. One needs to keep in mind things like how this decision might affect employee and equipment productivity, quality issues and input costs, to name a few.
Two detrimental outcomes usually accompany the decision to implement another band-aid solution. The first comes in the form of hidden long-term costs and what would be considered wasted downtime. Downtime is typically avoided like a plague in facilities, as well it should be. Unplanned downtime is often one of the most expensive costs a facility will incur. Why waste that downtime by implementing another temporary solution instead of taking advantage of the stoppage to actually address the real issue? Don't squander an opportunity to implement a portion of your migration plan.
The second negative outcome shows up in the form of repeating the same problem again, expecting a different result. After you've done this enough times, continuing to do so is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic as the ship is sinking. You'll continue performing more maintenance than necessary and potentially cause more new problems when combining parts and pieces of equipment that don't work well together. All the while, you'll continue to operate a system near complete catastrophe. If left too long, you'll simply run out of options, and any upgrades or migrations at that point will become extremely painful.
When you choose the route of a retrofit upgrade, your investment allows opportunity for implementing the latest technological advancements that could dramatically improve your product or throughput. New controls paired with new instrumentation can reduce your input costs by providing more accurate measuring, which will produce higher quality product. A new system would be more reliable, and scheduling planned maintenance would significantly reduce downtime. Modern system interfaces and communication platforms allow better real-time data tracking and trending information. This helps your operators be more efficient and keeps your management team in the loop about system performance. Mobile solutions supported by the latest hardware and software packages also allow for greater visibility and control of critical equipment. Let's not forget enhanced security features and greater track-and-trace functionality. All of these items work to directly impact your bottom line profit.
If you are currently facing any of these challenges at your facility and considering another band-aid fix, perhaps this discussion makes you reconsider that decision. Let's again be clear; there are times and situations where a temporary solution is a good option. However, they are widely over-used and can have diminished return over time. If you are truly attempting to be as innovative and pioneering as your slogan or regular company meetings say you are, that latest band-aid idea likely falls outside the larger objectives of your company. Besides, you're getting sick of the pain that comes with constantly ripping off old band-aids only to replace them with new ones.
Our suggestion for all companies dealing with control system issues is to take a realistic look at the value of implementing a quick-fix solution vs. a larger upgrade when problems arise. There are many options available to help ease your system migration, and more are being developed each day. Do yourself and your company a favor and visit with a certified control system integrator or a representative of your automation platform about your options before spending additional time and effort on another quick-fix, band-aid solution.