SCADA Upgrade: Incremental or Full Scale?

June 17, 2024
Each manufacturer has to do its own analysis and decide the right approach based on three factors: budget, downtime and risk.

It’s been a long day at work and you head home to relax but find out the roof is leaking. Then, your spouse says, “Oh yeah, I meant to mention, I think the dishwasher is on the fritz too.” 

After 20 years in the same house, a thought pops into your mind: We’ve been meaning to do something to the basement, too. Is it time to move?

With hardware and software technologies developing at lightning speed and getting more complex all the time, the industrial production and utility worlds face similar questions regarding their SCADA systems. In this case, the question is: Do we upgrade incrementally or entirely replace existing systems?  It’s a question industrial manufacturing plants deal with at least on an annual basis. And the answer is not a simple one.

It’s the same decision tree one faces after living in a house for 20 years. Do you replace the roof, water heater, dishwasher and look and feel of the home or just move to a new house?

There are three main considerations to contemplate when a potential large capital project sits before you:

Budget. It’s the first and most obvious consideration for most companies as they contemplate moving forward on any project: What will it cost? What is the cost of new hardware, software and licensing to support that software? Is there a need for new personnel to run the system or are there defined hard business costs entailed with building a new system from the ground up? Do we have reserves in the bank for this kind of upgrade or repair or do we need to start setting some aside now to budget for the upcoming year?  Then there’s the opportunity cost analysis to think about and that leads to the next consideration. 

Downtime. Breaking down the argument for a full-scale or incremental SCADA upgrade may have a lot to do with required outputs and your production schedule. Downtime is a significant piece of the puzzle, if not the most significant piece of the puzzle. While a full-scale upgrade may be in the budget and will set you up well for the future, there has to be a cost/risk analysis of what the downtime will cost you. 

Incremental upgrades often allow for reduced downtime or even allow production to remain at full pace while changes are made. A full-scale upgrade most likely will require a longer stretch of downtime but may be able to make up those lost production days with greater efficiency and speed. Careful attention to your production goals, seasons of strength in your industry and busy uptimes and downtimes can help navigate those decisions.

Risk. There are multiple ways to look at risk when weighing a capital expenditure like a SCADA upgrade. For an incremental upgrade, the risk is that your system will not take advantage of the full efficiency power of a complete overhaul. Pairing new equipment or software with aging or outdated equipment or software risks that you will not achieve the efficiency standard or increase to production goals you’d like to see. While no upgrade promises 100% optimization, pairing old and new technologies might only deliver a 60% gain on goals such as upgraded security, efficiency and safety because legacy components may limit system performance. 

On the flip side, smaller changes to a system equal smaller risk of major disruptions. If you choose an incremental upgrade approach, a clear prioritization of critical components and a phased approach will inherently minimize your risk. Following a long-term, phased approach to eventually make all necessary updates to bring efficiency and longevity to your systems can absolutely work successfully for some companies and be easier on the bank account, as costs are spread over a longer time period.

Leveraging expertise

There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to choosing an incremental approach or full-scale approach to upgrading your SCADA system. The only bad decision is to not decide. 

If you’re paralyzed at the thought of where to begin that’s where a system integrator can be your friend. Find one who is reliable and completely understands the complexities of large systems and is devoted to the newest technology, software and hardware platforms so they can walk you through the process of what you currently have and what your options might be moving forward. When you’ve built that trusted relationship, they will steer you in the right direction and help you navigate the challenges of a planned upgrade.

Keith Mandachit, PE, is engineering manager at Huffman Engineering Inc., certified members of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Huffman Engineering, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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