How do you know when it is time to modernize a control system? This is not an easy question to answer – it requires a careful examination of your current situation. Manufacturers that want to modernize their control systems must compare the costs of repairs and potential production downtimes with the costs of the modernization and long-term potential for increased productivity and reliability. And these factors are only the tip of the iceberg.
Although executing a system modernization can be a costly process involving many considerations, there are important reasons why manufacturers should consider taking the plunge. As a control system ages, it becomes increasingly more costly and time consuming to maintain. Aging components tend to fail at a greater frequency, and costs for system repairs or replacements can quickly multiply. Another problem is that vendors discontinue older versions of their technologies, making it difficult for manufacturers to obtain new replacement parts on their existing systems. As a result, manufacturers no longer able to get the right parts often turn to unreliable replacements that may cause damage.
Foregoing a system modernization often means you will be stuck with older technologies that keep your facility systems from reaping the benefits that newer technologies provide. To illustrate my point, let’s time travel back to the 1980s. A portable phone at that time was the size of a 2×4 and weighed over 2lbs. After 10 hours of charging, you could talk for 30 minutes, if you were lucky. Bag phones were available if you wanted more talk time, but the large battery and transmitter were equally burdensome.
Fast-forward to today and just consider the size and power of modern cell phones and all the ways they make our everyday lives more convenient. No one would think twice about equipping a system with clunky, 1980s era technologies. This is the reason a system modernization is considered a long-term investment. While foregoing a modernization may bring about a short-term monetary savings, it comes at a huge sacrifice in terms of the possible long-term benefits.
Rockwell Allen-Bradley PLC-5® to ControlLogix® Migrations
The situation with Rockwell Automation’s PLC-5® is a good example of why a technology investment is so important to the long-term well-being of a facility. First introduced in 1986, the PLC-5® became obsolete in June 2017. It was one of the first platforms that could be programmed with a personal computer. Thanks to its low rate of failure, the PLC-5® platform has been used all over the world for the last 30+ years and has garnered a large user base. It is just one of Rockwell Automation’s popular Allen-Bradley portfolio of products. Since Rockwell stopped production, demand for system migrations to ControlLogix® has skyrocketed, and it is now one of the most frequently sought-out services.
Over my career at EAD, I have done quite a few PLC-5® to ControlLogix® control system conversions. There are several options available for facilities considering migrating from the PLC-5® platform. Equipment can be removed and replaced all at once, or gradually, in stages. I once performed a migration for a major transportation company that used PLC-5® processors and I/O to control their facility sorting processes. Although the systems in their sorting facility were aging, my client had been slow to upgrade due to budgetary concerns. However, when Rockwell Automation announced that they planned to discontinue the PLC-5®, it became clear that the time for a system modernization had arrived. With the current control system components obsolete and replacements no longer available, my client knew they would have to depend on used components for spare parts in the event of a component failure. They foresaw that in the long-term, the risk of a system breakdown would be more cost prohibitive than a modernization.
My team and I modernized the sorting systems at our client’s multiple sites, managing the implementation in phases so that spare components from the upgraded facilities could be used to support systems in the facilities that had not yet been upgraded. We performed our work during non-sorting times so as not to interrupt our client’s package sorting operation. This meant that we were restricted to very short periods of time, usually only a few hours, to do any upgrades or test changes before the next sort time began.
As part of the modernization, our team devised a method that enabled our client to save time and reduce risk using Allen-Bradley’s interface modules (IFM). First, we landed field wiring on terminal blocks in our client’s panel that we then replaced with IFMs. Our method enabled the electrician to relocate the existing field wiring to the new IFM and install factory cables from the IFM to the PLC-5® hardware. We associated each IFM with a single I/O module that was programmed to work on a single module or chassis during a single non-sort time. This method of using IFMs to replace the terminal blocks for the field wiring saved our client time and money during the time critical check-out and start-up processes. We were also able to use the IFM to test the new ControlLogix® hardware and programs without removing the PLC-5® hardware. Overall, this approach made the PLC-5® to ControlLogix® conversion seamless, quick, and cost-efficient.
Modernizing A Control System as an Investment in the Productivity of your Facility
When making the tough decision about whether the time has come to modernize your facility systems, there are a few items to keep in mind. I highly recommend any company that is still using PLC-5® to upgrade to ControlLogix®. Not only is the PLC-5® obsolete, as I mentioned earlier, but the ControlLogix® hardware is smaller, faster, and uses less power than its predecessors. Thanks to its new, faster processors, a single ControlLogix® processor is much more powerful than multiple PLC-5® processors combined.
I also recommend system upgrades to companies that highly value data collection, tracking, and system monitoring as part of their business intelligence strategy. A modernized control system can monitor facility systems, network traffic, track and report data, and analyze where the system performance can be improved. The advanced technologies in these modern systems can for example both identify the network load and eliminate potential problems before installation.
EAD has the expertise to support all phases of a system modernization, even during the initial decision-making phase. Our first step with any new project is to assess if a system modernization is the best option for our client from both a technical and business perspective. If it is, and the goals of all stakeholders are aligned, our next step it to determine the best way to execute upon the modernization so as to minimize downtimes that could adversely impact our client’s business. Ultimately, we know that a controls systems migration is an investment in our client’s facility that will translate into increased profits and a higher ROI. As an expert in controls automation, I feel great pride in seeing that this outcome is met in a quick and cost-effective manner.
– By Roy Canterbury