While consulting at client sites as a controls engineering specialist, my manufacturing industry clients often ask me, “should I migrate or modernize my controls systems?” It’s a tough question for me to answer, as the decision about whether to migrate or modernize depends on a variety of factors. Clients wanting to upgrade to a new platform or to a newer version of the same platform while keeping their legacy system intact should pursue a system migration. But I advise clients willing to commit to a complete system re-design to go for a system modernization, as this approach makes it possible to implement new technologies that enhance the capabilities of their existing systems. Here is what I typically tell my clients:
Migrating a control system just keeps the system working. When you go the extra step to modernize your control system, you can design the new system to take advantage of the newest available manufacturing techniques and technologies. Modernizing enables you to benefit from the increases in productivity and efficiency that these new technologies can bring to your business. For example, through a system modernization, you can implement artificial intelligence (AI). AI is able to learn your systems’ current processes and adjust for optimal performance. As an option, you can also implement an inventory management system known as a Just-In-Time (JIT) system, where the production schedule drives the ordering of material. In a JIT system, each stage of the manufacturing process determines when and how much material is required. Material can be ordered so that it arrives just as it is needed. Therefore, should you choose to migrate, rather than modernize, know that you may be missing out on these and other benefits.
Considerations during an evaluation
So, although there are clearly benefits to modernizing a controls system, it may not be as obvious to know when, exactly, that right time to modernize is. The first step when considering whether a system modernization is the right direction for your facility is to evaluate your existing hardware. Consider the following questions in your evaluation: How old is your control system? What is the life expectancy of the equipment? At what rate is the equipment failing? How many spares are on hand? Are replacements obsolete and is a spare available? What will it cost if a piece of hardware fails and a replacement is not available? Is there a plan in place for when hardware cannot be replaced or fixed?
You may also have to consider whether your hardware is designed for the manufacture of a very specific product. If that is the case, you will need to reconfigure or replace hardware should you decide to make changes. In modernized manufacturing facilities, more of the production is controlled by control system applications. A modern system makes it is possible to efficiently add or change the manufacturing process with only minimal modifications to the hardware and minimal reconfiguring of the application.
Another crucial factor to consider when evaluating whether a system modernization is the right choice for your facility are the internal processes that control your production output. You will need to be able to answer the following questions: How often do your processes change? What is the time required to add or change a product in your production line? What is required to increase production and/or reduce the overall cost of the product?
A modern control system collects data from the production process. By analyzing this data, it is possible to determine where production inefficiencies occur and to investigate how to reduce these inefficiencies. Thus, with a modern system, it is not only easier to learn from your current processes but to modify these to make them more efficient and increase your bottom line.