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.