- By Scott Martin
- May 01, 2023
With the right PLC and HMI digital platforms, systems integrators can support their clients so they can keep legacy equipment operating for many years.
Industrial automation systems integration is a term encompassing numerous details and specialties. Systems integrators (SIs) need to be able to handle many considerations, including associated software, networking, digital devices, electrical systems, mechanical equipment, functionality, safety, usability and much more. While some SIs can handle many disciplines to a certain degree, end users need to look for providers who can deliver on the most critical aspects of their application.
Engaging an effective SI with the right capabilities and technology experience is a great advantage for end users, OEMs and even other SIs as partners. Some projects are completely new from the ground up, but a large proportion involve updating the digital automation and information platforms of existing equipment, or otherwise integrating with legacy systems. For many reasons, updating older equipment can be even more challenging than starting with a clean sheet design.
After starting my career in the aerospace industry, I transitioned to the industrial automation systems sector, specifically working for the semiconductor industry. I saw many cases where digital systems associated with various types of equipment simply became unmaintainable, and realizing the opportunity I created KCC Software to support end users with automation retrofits, upgrades and new installations. KCC has since expanded into many other industries across the nation and the world. Computer science skills, applied using a proven toolkit of industry products and standards, has helped immensely with our success.
Designing for the long haul
Much of the equipment used throughout manufacturing industries incorporates significant electromechanical elements. Motors, solenoids, hydraulic/pneumatic actuators, valve bodies, electrical components, sensors and so forth can usually be repaired, or replaced with equivalents. Capital equipment is usually so costly that it makes good sense to keep machines in operation for decades if there are no performance, technology, or efficiency downsides.
However, the case is not quite the same with digital controls. As digital technologies have improved and matured, certain chipsets and standards are abandoned and are no longer available, relevant, or compatible. Electronic components may eventually fail due to age or heat, or fall victim to lightning strikes or other power surges.
Some microprocessor-based systems are so thoroughly custom that there is simply no practical or economical way to troubleshoot or repair them, and technicians with the necessary skills are very hard to find. In addition, even if older systems can be sustained, albeit at great expense, they lack the data connectivity and cybersecurity provisions demanded by industrial end users.
For these and other reasons, there is a great demand for SIs able to support OEMs and end users by performing digital systems retrofits and upgrades. At KCC, our goal is to apply programming skills and proven industrial digital devices to make switching to a new automation platform, which now accounts for half of our business, simple for our clients.
Keeping gas controllers in service
Semiconductor, solar panel and LED manufacturing industries use a variety of gasses for processing materials. Some of these gases are inert, but many are toxic, flammable, or caustic. The most dangerous gasses are handled via jacketed tubing to contain any leaks. Many times, these systems include piping and hardware so they can mechanically operate in a redundant manner because the processes using them are in such demand or are so costly to operate that any downtime must be minimized.
The mechanicals of these systems—such as valves, tubing and even sensors—can typically stay in service for a long time and be maintained or replaced effectively. However, many of these systems in service are controlled by specialized microprocessor systems developed in the early 1990s or before. Managing the storage, distribution and delivery of these gasses from gas bunkers to process equipment—while maintaining purity and safety—requires careful control and monitoring of valves, pressures, flows, temperatures and more. When the control platform is obsolete or impossible to maintain, users need a solution.
Ripping and replacing an entire gas distribution system requires decommissioning, building a new system, and recommissioning, all of which are exceptionally expensive and time consuming. However, with the right parts and programming, it is possible to just change out the controller and input/output (I/O) modules, sometimes resulting in a pause for just one shift, instead of an outage for months.
Because existing systems using dedicated microcontrollers are usually space-constrained, it is important to select commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) digital devices—like programmable logic controllers (PLCs), I/O, human-machine interfaces (HMIs)—with a compact footprint and convenient form factor.
KCC has found that in most cases, AutomationDirect BRX PLCs and C-more HMIs, in conjunction with other items such as STRIDE Ethernet network switches, are an ideal platform for designing retrofits. These COTS devices are readily available and easily installed even in tight locations, and the BRX PLC provides many modern programming capabilities (Figure 1, 2).
Modern PLCs and HMIs have no issue improving upon the functionality offered by legacy dedicated/custom microcontrollers, while making it much easier to add new capabilities. Graphical touchscreen HMIs are simpler for users to work with than legacy membrane keypads and alphanumeric displays, and today’s PLCs offer much better communications options for integrating the gas systems with other plant-floor equipment, and with control room or enterprise supervisory systems.
Another example of automation retrofits is for bailers, which are large hydraulic systems used to compress cardboard, scrap product and other materials so they can be efficiently transported to another destination, such as a recycler. A number of sizeable OEMs built these systems from the 1950s onward and as with the gas controllers, these bailers can be kept in service almost indefinitely from an electromechanical standpoint.
However, the automation system often consists of specialized controllers, or obsolete PLCs, or sometimes basic hardwiring. Eventually, to continue support or add even minor capabilities, it becomes necessary to perform an automation retrofit (Figure 3). KCC has become an expert at new control upgrades for many different types of bailers.
Once again, KCC relies on AutomationDirect BRX PLCs and C-more HMIs. In this case, the PLC program we originally created has been improved to accommodate almost any conceivable equipment need. There is basically one master program, which simply needs to be configured to match the equipment options. No extra programming is needed during commissioning, and the PLC is quickly installed to interface with any existing AC or DC I/O. The HMI then provides several pages of configuration options, so the startup team can simply enable or disable the appropriate features (Figure 4).
Figure 4: In addition to keeping valuable equipment in service, an automation upgrade can provide many new enhancements, configuration settings and diagnostics simply not possible with legacy controls.
The I/O is part of this configuration, as are the available alarms. New enhancements, such as local metrics and reporting, are included so users can operate and maintain their equipment more efficiently. Future upgrades will include remote access and IIoT capabilities.
Supporting clients effectively and economically
At KCC, our focus has primarily been on delivering software solutions and digital platforms to keep our clients running smoothly. AutomationDirect products and technologies, backed by extensive online documentation, resources and phone/internet support, have played a key role in our work. We have consistently relied on PLCs, HMIs and other automation products from this supplier and have always been satisfied by their performance and reliability. Our business has expanded throughout many industries using these components.
We are also growing our offerings based on the StrideLinx remote access and data solution. Using this platform, we can notify our clients and our support staff of alarms as they happen, create data connectivity to support analytical spreadsheets and databases, and connect remotely to support maintenance efforts. This has turned into a monthly maintenance service for many of our clients, allowing us to support them without the need for them to add staff.
Our hybrid approach allows our clients to keep using many of their decades-old systems, while reaping the advantages of modernized automation. This cost-efficient methodology makes the most of existing systems, while providing new PLCs, HMIs and other critical components, all of which can be easily maintained and upgraded by their staff.
All figures courtesy of KCC Software
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