Reduce Automation Obsolescence Risks without Losing your Mind

End-of-Life Planning for Equipment Is Crucial for Keeping the Plant up and Running

By Lonnie Morris

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From a constant stream of mobile device releases to the explosion of cloud applications for all areas of business, technology advancements are happening at such an exhausting pace today that it's easy to get paralyzed by the possibilities. It's intimidating to think about how any organization can plan quickly enough to leverage such changes for competitive advantage.

Before a production facility can even consider trying to justify emerging plant-floor technology, it's generally necessary to maximize the life of its existing automation investments. Managing aging equipment is an often-overlooked component of this: Over 90% of process manufacturers acknowledged the use of electrical and automation equipment beyond the manufacturer's obsolescence date, according to a 2011 study from ARC Advisory Group.

In the same study ARC study, 58% of users acknowledge having no formal plan for managing the lifecycle of their equipment. Production facilities that continue to operate aging equipment without a plan for addressing and managing end-of-life technology face a variety of risks that threaten to drastically increase downtime and decrease profitability should legacy systems fail:

  • Supply chain fragility. A number of control systems that were designed and launched in the 1970s and 1980s are still in use today. Technology shifts, diminishing demand and economic impacts have made some vital components and subassemblies used in these systems hard to come by. Some are in short supply and others are completely extinct.
  • Support challenges. Difficulties locating legacy products can be further compounded by maintenance challenges. Not only is maintenance expensive, but attrition among subject matter experts brings an added layer of complexity.
  • Regulatory restrictions. Safety regulations and rules regarding hazardous substances (e.g., the Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive) have expanded significantly in recent years, leaving many older products at risk for compliance.

Mitigate or Eliminate?

Operating legacy equipment beyond its obsolescence date will always carry a degree of risk. But by identifying and quantifying this risk, production facilities can determine whether to mitigate the risk until scheduling and/or capital funding becomes available or to eliminate risk through product migration.

There are a few critical questions to ask that will help determine the best path forward:

  • How long do you intend to operate equipment?
  • Is support readily available?
  • Is capital funding available?
  • Is there applicable new technology available?
  • What are the migration implications related to spare parts, training, support, etc.?

Considerations for Mitigating Obsolescence Risk

In many cases, mitigating obsolescence risk is the best option, given budget and resource constraints. Though specific plans for effectively mitigating obsolescence risk may vary from one organization to another, best practice plans contain four basic pillars:

1. Conducting consistent preventive maintenance.

According to ARC Advisory Group, there is currently more than $65-billion worth of legacy automation assets reaching the end of their useful life. And though some would like to think these systems can run and be serviced indefinitely, it is simply not possible.

After operating a PLC-5 for over 20 years, for example, maintenance might start to feel like the controller is bulletproof – that since it has made it so long without a problem, it will continue to do so. But, as it does in life, age wins in the end, and serviceability may be limited or even non-existent.

As equipment reaches the end of its useful life, age and wear take their toll. Failure rates drastically increase, as do maintenance costs (Figure 1). Plants are perpetually one major part break or machine failure away from a shutdown, and legacy equipment is more susceptible to these sorts of hiccups. As a result, preventive maintenance becomes absolutely essential.

To drive consistent preventive maintenance of discontinued products, maintenance engineers need to be constantly asking questions, such as:

  • Are the filters replaced regularly
  • Is the current operating environment within OEM specifications?
  • Are cooling fans operational and clear of obstruction?
  • Does the equipment possess the latest firmware update?
  • Is there an updated logbook documenting inspections of obsolete equipment?
  • When is the last time grounding was checked?

After determining the answers, maintenance needs to act to remedy any problems and correct any irregularities. But this is often easier said than done. Most organizations realize the importance of preventive maintenance, but many simply don't have the tools or the organizational bandwidth to do it. Finding a way to get it done – either by outsourcing or reprioritizing – is paramount to extending the useful life of equipment. Systems that aren't properly maintained are much more likely to fall victim to extended downtime and lengthy shutdowns.  Developing an enhanced preventive maintenance program is vital to maximizing the life of legacy automation.

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