Automation Life Cycles - Important Consideration for Purchases, Migrations & Upgrades

  • March 29, 2013
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor

For a new project or existing systems replacement/migration, life cycles should be part of the analysis when making a decision to purchase a control & automation systems.  Your company’s manufacturing competitiveness and TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) are directly impacted by the supplier’s lifecycles of the automation products that you purchase.

Technology Life Cycles

Technology life cycles describe the stages a technology goes through over time.

In the beginning, many refer to new technology as “bleeding edge”- when it shows high potential but hasn't demonstrated its value or settled down into any kind of consensus. Examples of this include the early implementations of microprocessors, PLCs, Ethernet, Windows HMIs, and direct digital control. Early adopters may win big, or may be stuck with a white elephant.

As a technology progresses past “bleeding edge,” it is considered “leading edge” - when it has proven itself in the marketplace but is still new enough that it may be difficult to find knowledgeable personnel to implement or support it.

When everyone agrees that a particular technology is the right solution it becomes “state of the art.”

As the technology ages, it is referred to as “dated” – when it is still useful, still sometimes implemented, but a replacement “leading edge” technology is readily available to take its place.

At some point, technology becomes “obsolete” – when it has been superseded by other state-of-the-art technology. Obsolete technology becomes significantly more expensive over time, there are less people that understand it, and at some point it is no longer sold.

When making a decision to buy controls and automation you are investing in the vendor’s technology lifecycle so it is important to understand what technologies the vendor is using in their products. This is particularly important for controllers because more functions are being added that enable more flexible and responsive manufacturing. The new breed of controllers incorporate dual core and quad core CPUs that that make them extensions of enterprise systems on the plant floor.  They often include embedded historians, analytics, alarm management, equipment diagnostics, batch managers, advanced control optimization, and rules engines. These powerful devices perform meaningful advanced control and data refinement at the information source.

Product Life Cycle

Suppliers use a Product Life Cycle to map the commercial lifespan of a product in five stages - namely introduction, growth, maturity, decline, and replacement. The cycle directly relates to their investment timing since new product development and production is costly and needs to return profits. When you buy an automation system that is at the maturity or later stage of its lifecycle, the purchase has great potential to put you at a competitive disadvantage relative to other manufactures in your industry that use newer more powerful technology.

Many components and technologies make up an entire automation system making it difficult to determine the composite lifecycle stage. Each component including sensors, controllers, communications, application software, operating systems, and computers have separate technology and product lifecycles.

System Migration & Upgrades

Migration and upgrades of parts of a system is a way to improve systems without entire replacements. With systems where software and controllers are tightly coupled, this is more difficult. An example of a tightly coupled system is when the addition of a new software feature requires purchasing new controller firmware.

Another tethering point is the use of proprietary communications methods and protocols that limit system component choices. These dependencies are not always obvious. For example, a vendor may be using an industry standard open protocol but has implemented unique vendor-specific messages within the protocol. The irony is that these vendors may be prominent supporters of an open protocol but are unwilling to share these methods for use in the standard.

Purchase Decisions

Technology and product lifecycles should be a consideration when purchasing control and automation since they are an investment that impacts your company’s manufacturing competitiveness and TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) over a number of years. The key components are depreciable life, economic life and service life. Elements of cost incurred over time include maintenance costs, warranty costs, maintenance labor, service contracts, upgrade costs, and reconfiguration costs. This is not always an easy analysis, but fundamentally the vendor’s product lifecycle sets the boundaries for the lifecycle of your purchase.

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