Don’t Corner Yourself with an Automation Obsolescence Justification

Recently, when Emerson’s John Dolenc was in Austin, we had one of those hallway conversations about automation modernization projects. He shared a paper he’d written a few years back that contained many of his thoughts on modernization project justification. The paper had many pearls of wisdom that I’ll share over the coming months.

John had strong points about being careful using automation equipment obsolescence as a cornerstone of your project justification efforts. He warned that automation system component obsolescence is a real issue that needs to be addressed. The inability of system suppliers to source components for their older systems and the lack of engineering expertise are issues that also should be addressed.

While your maintenance costs may be increasing, he finds that true maintenance savings are normally not large enough to justify the capital investment. Also, the cost of unplanned process shutdowns due to system failure must be factored by the probability of a failure occurring. We all know that electronic components will eventually fail. Predicting the probability of the failure is the difficulty.

Using obsolescence as the primary justification usually means the management team will dictate the cost of system replacement be kept at the lowest possible level. You lose the opportunity for financial gains through process optimization with improved control strategies, additional or more accurate process measurements and improved control actions. Also, you lose the chance to work with the operators to improve the operator displays and alarm management to handle abnormal situations more effectively.

Instead, one needs to consider the advantages afforded with new technology. The opportunity to review the process thoroughly to identify mechanical and process issues should be taken. Process automation modernization should extend beyond the automation system to include the instrumentation, automated block valves, control valves and variable speed drives.

John noted that it is a rare circumstance where well-designed control strategies can overcome these process- and equipment-related issues. Replacing the obsolete process control system without addressing underlying process problems will not yield the operational performance improvements that some would expect with current automation technologies.

Other areas to consider with new automation technologies include:

  • Reduced unplanned process shutdowns and reduced maintenance costs using predictive maintenance practices
  • Improved production management through increased process information exchange between the automation system and higher-level operations and enterprise software
  • Process optimization through historical process monitoring and trending to allow process engineers to disseminate historical information.

When economic times are good, everybody is usually so busy that the status quo prevails. Difficult economic times offer the best opportunity to really take a close look at your operations, baseline it, and develop an automation plan to improve production and decrease production costs. In future posts we’ll take a closer look at John’s thoughts on addressing system obsolescence, process automation modernization opportunities, and automation modernization planning.

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Update: Welcome, readers of Gary Mintchell’s Feed Forward blog. Thanks for visiting!

Update 2: I just received an email from Control Global which includes a link to an article, Control System Migration. It does a great job describing the migration planning process and is something you may want to check out.

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