DCS Migration: Failure Is Not an Option

And Doing Nothing Is Not a Solution. DCS Migration Is an Opportunity to Design, Implement and Maintain a 21st-Century Control System That Will Help Industry Processes Be More Efficient and Safe

By Matt Sigmon

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Recently, I watched the movie, Apollo 13, again, this time with my four children who had never seen the cinematic classic. I've personally seen it too many times to count; it's one of my favorites—primarily because it's based on actual events. Perhaps my favorite scene in the movie is the one where Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris), NASA flight director of the Apollo missions, is confronted with the harsh reality that three American astronauts were trapped inside the crippled command and lunar modules, unlikely to reach their destination and needing a difficult, if not impossible, rescue. Back at Mission Control, Kranz and those around him confronted the likelihood of mission failure and loss of three lives. But Kranz was a rock of sanity and determination. As the movie depicts, it was in this moment and faced with a mountain of pressure that Kranz uttered the words, "Failure is not an option!"

Interestingly, however, Kranz never actually uttered that phrase during the Apollo 13 mission. Rather, it was written by screenplay writers after interviewing former flight controller Jerry Bostick. As the story goes, while interviewing Bostick for the movie, writers Al Reinart and Bill Broyles asked, "Weren't there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?" Bostick answered, "No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution." Reinart and Broyles so liked that sentiment they coined it as, "Failure is not an option," and gave it to Kranz in the screenplay.

Admittedly, most controls engineers will never be confronted with such a life-and-death dilemma, yet we do face problems that demand the same determined ethic. Perhaps the most critical challenge facing the automation industry is that of aging control systems at or near the end of their product lifecycles. Many refineries, chemical plants and paper mills are more than 50 years old, and most of them have been running on the same control systems for more than three decades. This is particularly the case with DCS systems, though there are certainly a multitude of mature PLC, SCADA and DDC systems likewise nearing the end of their lifespans. According to one recent report, there is $65 billion of obsolete control systems installed worldwide. Assuming that a third of those (approximately $20 billion) are DCS systems, the result is that over 10 million DCS I/O points will need to be migrated over the next 10+ years. Multiple platforms are no longer approaching the end of their lifecycles; they are already there. For many systems, the can simply cannot be kicked further down the road.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

However, while obsolescence is certainly a real and pressing concern for owners of older control systems, it is not the only issue they face when considering the challenge of platform migration. The objective should not be to simply replace and replicate, but rather to innovate. DCS migration is an opportunity to design, implement and maintain a 21st-century control system that will enable the manufacturer to operate more efficiently and safely; position it for market growth; and firm up its stability for a quarter-century or more. Further, it is an occasion for process improvement and expansion, as well as a much needed opportunity to address the gap between how the plant is currently operated and controlled and how it should be.

For example, refineries in North America are running above design capacity, some as much as 135% above. The youngest refinery in the United States is the Exxon-Mobil refinery in Joliet, Ill., which is 43 years old. The control systems installed at most refineries and other process facilities were designed to requirements developed years before actual construction began. Further, the systems in these plants have been upgraded and modified over the years, but in most cases the upgrades and modifications have been done to continue the basic operational functionality of the plant. Rarely has an upgrade been done that took deviations in design requirements into account, nor implemented with a goal of improving process efficiency and productivity.

Leaders, Followers and Laggards

Aberdeen Group, a major consultancy that works in manufacturing, divides companies into: Leaders, who set the pace and implement new strategies; Followers, who do what leaders do, but later; and Laggards, who do not do what Leaders or Followers do until it is nearly too late or already too late for them to continue to be competitive without major change. The issue of DCS upgrades and 21st -century competitiveness clearly lends itself to Aberdeen's method. For industrial manufacturers with a significant DCS installed base, the problem is daunting, and they face the real challenges of limited resources and capital.

The Leaders have been proactive in facing these problems and challenges, having already begun implementing migration strategies and plans. This includes Front End Loading (FEL) studies, capital and commissioning planning, and actual execution of migration projects. Most Leaders are also using modern collaborative tools and outsiders, such as vendors and especially controlsystem integrators, as effective, long-term team members.

Many others haven't been so proactive, yet these Followers are now beginning to embark on similar endeavors. They are starting and completing evaluations; developing preliminary estimates and schedules; and laying out roadmaps for their migrations. Some in this second category are further along than others, but all face similar challenges, including vendor selection, funding approval, and figuring out how to migrate thousands of I/O and application programs to a new system with little or no downtime.

Finally, a number of manufacturers, the Laggards, are in reactive mode and have done little or nothing to plan for or begin migrating their obsolete systems. In a recent discussion, one controls engineer told me his management' will not begin replacing their old DCS until equipment failures that can't be remedied with parts refurbished on-site cause process downtime.

Failure should not be an option, yet for some industrial manufacturers it's a very real possibility, particularly those in the third category. With no plan, no funding approved and no migration work completed, they potentially face production downtime, loss of efficiency and diminished market presence. And without an effective, proactive plan, they will likely struggle to secure funding, fail to thoroughly evaluate their options, and spend too much when they finally begin the process of migration.

Even so, there is time and opportunity to plan for success, implement the right solution and move your organization forward. How? Here are some key steps that should be put into practice post-haste.

First, start planning now. Don't delay any longer. In 1961, President Kennedy issued a great challenge to the American people and to a specific team of engineers, scientists, pilots and others. But it took more than a challenge for the goal to be achieved. It took years of planning, research, effort and continued refining of the solutions and designs. The team did not quit after the Apollo 1 tragedy, and neither did it quit when faced the impending disaster of Apollo 13. Failure was not, and should not, be an option. Plan the work and work the plan, and start planning now. Incorporate all the stakeholders in the design team, and demand the assistance of vendors and control system integrators at the very front end of the project.

Second, remember that you must develop the project in light of the business goals of the enterprise and the place of the plant in the company's overall financial strategy. Funding for migration projects will likely not come easily or quickly, and you will need a strategy and plan in order to secure it. The sooner you take the first couple of steps, the sooner you can get funding approved, and begin implementing a holistic plan that addresses not only the obsolescence of your existing systems, but also helps you drive process improvement.

Third, get the right people on your team and challenge them to deliver. Remind them failure (e.g., downtime, loss of production, etc.) is not an option, and success is achievable. You likely can't go this alone, and you'll need a team that possesses the right aptitude and attitude for success. Look for partners and team members that understand your needs and goals and will be mutually committed to your mission's success. Be careful of biases and excuses—they'll lead you down the wrong road or hold you back. Seek out those who are objective and experienced. They can be found in your supplier community, in the control system integrator community, and among your plant operators and maintenance staff.

And fourth, but not last, as you face challenges, setbacks and delays, go back to your plan, revise your solutions and keep moving forward. Stagnation and apathy will result in missed opportunities and possibly failure. As the Apollo 13 mission taught us, never panic and never give up on finding the right solution. Lay out the options, consider them objectively and develop a migration and funding plan that meets your objectives and results in success. 

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