System migration projects begin with strategic supplier partnerships |

System migration projects begin with strategic supplier partnerships

System migration projects begin with strategic supplier partnerships
By John Boville, Schneider Electric

North America's industrial infrastructure has aged to an alarming level. Some estimates reveal that $65 billion worth of process automation systems are nearing the end of their lifecycles, and at least $22 billion of these systems are installed in North America and are more than 20 years old.

There are several clues to assessing whether or not a process automation system is becoming a potential liability. The most obvious are when 1) replacement parts become more expensive because they are harder to find; 2) the support personnel familiar with the system begin to retire; and/or 3) performance for a process is limited by the equipment controlling it.

Despite these warning signs, some facility managers are forced to adopt the reactive stance of “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.” As a consequence, underinvestment in an automation system and its component parts has forced both to run much longer than comparable IT and other non-manufacturing assets. Unchecked, this can lead to significant periods of downtime, which can cost literally thousands of dollars per minute in some cases. But that’s just the beginning. Such episodes can lead to missed deadlines and dissatisfied customers, and could provide the impetus for those customers to take their automation business elsewhere.

However, facilities managers are becoming more proactive in how they evaluate and address these issues. They see their automation system obsolescence challenges as an opportunity to improve productivity and reduce cost.

To make this possible, companies are partnering with their supplier of electrical distribution, automation and control products and solutions to ensure seamless process changeovers with the least amount of risk. These partnerships leverage the skill set, resources and experience of the vendor who can provide turnkey support for the entire project.

Conversely, “doing it yourself” can be an overwhelming prospect for facility managers because of the complexity of such projects. This is particularly true if system expertise is no longer available internally or multiple processes, system or products need to be updated. Partnering with a supplier with the right expertise who can focus entirely on the task at hand allows them to evaluate the entire facility or process without bias to build a cohesive plan to maximize short-term and long-term gains. The details of this plan are developed from a detailed equipment audit that addresses obsolescence challenges, reviews the process and application performance and the customers’ future plant goals. It will also include a clear timeline and recommendations from which a facility manager can prioritize each change based on business benefit and how to prepare in advance.

Any interruption of production is an interruption in income. Every control solution supplier understands this, but only a few have the knowledge of the specific equipment and resources needed to build the necessary tools and process to successfully execute process upgrades quickly and easily. This proven experience is critical to developing a strategic system migration plan to fit the specific plant needs; a plan that minimizes risk, downtime and cost, and allows the customer to quickly take advantage of new levels of productivity.

Challenges in today’s manufacturing environment

Industrial facility managers face a challenging environment when it comes to running their plants with legacy automation systems, and many are struggling just to keep systems running. Market forces are driving the need for greater flexibility and improved time-to-market for shorter production runs that are highly customized. In the ultra-competitive consumer goods market, for example, this means manufacturers are constantly changing things like packaging, flavoring and coloring as a marketing tool. This places stress on older production lines, processes and equipment that were designed for long runs of standard products. System performance will suffer when the immense upside of modern technology isn’t leveraged.

These challenges create a perception among facility owners and managers that system migration projects are complicated, expensive and perhaps even impossible without major capital expenditures. But despite the fact that technology changes fast, proficient suppliers can provide the knowledge, resources and tools to help facility managers stay ahead of the curve and update equipment based on need. More importantly though, automation and control suppliers are providing the justification for diverting operational funds away from reactive problem resolution to proactive solutions that also improve overall system performance while at the same time reducing long-term cost. This is particularly important because the weaker economy has forced companies to dramatically reduce their capital expenditures for new equipment.

There are a number of factors that indicate a need as well as provide a clear justification for using operational expense to implement migration projects because they typically require investment to fix or cost money through loss of production. These include:

  • Concerns about unscheduled downtime
  • The current system is no longer cost effective to support
  • The current system no longer meets energy efficiency standards or goals
  • The current system can no longer integrate new information technology
  • New or emerging business opportunities are being hindered by the existing system
  • The current system is no longer able to respond to rapid shifts in customer demand
  • The current system lacks capacity and is not cost effective to expand

System migration projects are most likely to get approved if they can demonstrate direct support for key business drivers, like plant efficiency, maintenance cost reduction, modifications and expansion, and safety and security. An astute, carefully considered project plan developed by a skillful supplier leveraging all means of expertise at their disposal can help achieve these business objectives which, of course, have a significant impact on the plant’s bottom-line profitability and are important to project approval. Ultimately, the final decision to recommend a system migration will be made by the facility manager, who must trust their preferred vendor can be successful.

Taking a proactive approach to system migration

There are many benefits to taking a proactive approach to automation system migration, which is why suppliers are receiving more and more calls, particularly those with a reputation for top floor to shop floor success. An experienced supplier will take you from PO to completing your project with the least amount of disruption to your business and a minimum of risk. The enhanced features and functions of modern automation equipment – everything from programmable logic controllers (PLCs) to human-machine interfaces (HMIs) to variable frequency drives (VFDs) can improve productivity and generate increased revenue, which can translate to a more acceptable payback period for equipment purchases, which varies by the customer or industry, but usually ranges from one to three years. But more importantly, it can help increase equipment reliability and minimize the potential for even a short period of unscheduled downtime, which can be devastating for a manufacturer and the facility manager’s career, particularly in today’s sluggish economy.

Suppliers typically offer many other tools to make a system migration project more seamless. For example, you can find qualified suppliers with a migration tool that helps facility managers and owners visualize the financial impact of a system migration. These existing applications make it easy for customers to identify current inventory, maintenance spending, business processes and future automation and control strategy. In the hands of a skilled supplier, a system migration roadmap can be created that allows customers to develop their business case to justify the project and derive return on investment and return on assets calculations. This is key, because when it comes to migration and upgrade options, there are three alternative strategies that should be considered:

  • A complete system migration
  • A phased system migration that provides for an incremental investment strategy
  • An incremental system migration

An experienced supplier will walk the customer through these options within the context of the customer’s unique process efficiency requirements, maintenance costs, expansion plans or security concerns. A “rip it out and replace it” project is often riddled with the cost of unexpected integration and risks of extended downtime – or worse, unscheduled downtime after the project is complete. Because of this, industrial customers often prefer a supplier to assist in a phased or incremental migration approach, which enables replacement of one system component at a time, creating a progression of modernization at a pace that is consistent with budget constraints and the company’s risk tolerance.

A robust complement of control products and solutions are also key for suppliers and their customers. Additionally, professional suppliers will utilize field-proven procedures and tools to ensure a seamless transition that saves substantial hardware and labor costs and minimizes switchover time.

Forming a strategic supplier alliance

Whether a facility needs a complete, phased or incremental system migration, it’s clear that a supplier must be attuned to the needs and concerns of their customers when beginning a project. Without this understanding, a system migration project will be prone to failure. But a second wrong turn can be taken if you choose a supplier who doesn’t have a demonstrated track record of successful system migrations. You want to look for a supplier with your specific industry and product knowledge, years of experience managing these types of projects, the tools and resources to get the job done.

As the economy slowly improves and customers realize their ability to increase productivity may be hampered by an outmoded automation system, taking the proactive step of researching a supplier with a reputation for top-notch project coordination, completed within the timeframe it recommended with no periods of unplanned downtime later, will reap the rewards.

About the author
John Boville, Market Segment Manager for Schneider Electric's Industry business, has worked in the industrial automation sector for over 25 years. After joining Modicon in 1992, he held various customer-facing project management and marketing roles with Schneider Electric. Managing large automation migration projects has given John a unique perspective on the issues customers face with migrations and how success is defined in their terms. John hold a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Bradford, UK.
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