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The Wisdom of Perpetual Upgrades

When is the right time to retrofit? Before you paint yourself into a corner.

Michael Gurney
Michael Gurney

Have you ever wondered how timing can impact the effectiveness of a project? If you have not, it's important that you hear this story.

I was working with a client to help spec out a retrofit to their entire line that turned into a million dollar scope of work. Through the process it became clear that we were being sole sourced on the project; as long as we presented a reasonable budget, the project was ours. Needless to say, I was quite excited, right up until the point when they told me they could not afford any downtime.

This was discouraging news considering the size and scope on the project. A project that was straightforward from a technology and application standpoint had suddenly become a monumental task. A system I would normally estimate at three weeks for the startup turned into a six-week, shot in the dark with 24/7 hour coverage just in case anything went sideways. We got it done, but the time, energy, dollars and risk it took to make it happen were greatly amplified due to the no downtime conditions. As an example, the startup had to be rescheduled three times, with less than a week's notice, due to the fact that they could not derive enough production to stockpile product to carry them through the startup.

The reason the company got into this position was their own success, with production demand growing year over year to a point where they were running a 24/7 operation. Due to these production demands, there was extreme pressure to keep the machine running. This resulted in a lot of Band-Aid fixes and the elimination of necessary periodic maintenance (PM) downtime to clean and fix the machines properly. All of this culminated in more downtime, more production interruptions and, ultimately, missed deliveries and poor morale.

I tell this story as an extreme case of when NOT to retrofit, because it highlights a couple of important retrofit rules of retrofits.

Retrofit when downtime is the cheapest – A common phenomenon in our business is the mad rush to get projects completed before the end of the year. Much of this is due to manufacturers taking advantage yearly PM shutdowns or some equivalent. However, much of it can be attributed to people using up budget in a “use it or lose it” scenario, which can often be a mistake, because the project timing is then based on the availability of capital, rather than when downtime is the most affordable. This end-of-the-year rush also means you are trying to draw on resources that are already strained because of the increased demand during this time. Those resources become scarce, and therefore you pay a premium for their time.

Be proactive, not reactive. By putting off retrofits, manufacturers paint themselves into a corner. After the retrofit described above was completed, the resulting system operated at 60 percent capacity, with the same machinery and under the same production demands, which means they never should have had the capacity constraint in the first place. They could have avoided the situation altogether with a proactive approach.

To be proactive you need to have actionable intelligence on your system and its operation. I am a strong advocate for manufacturing intelligence systems that can identify bottlenecks in the system. Those bottlenecks are turned into retrofit opportunities and then you look for the next bottleneck. In this fashion, retrofits can be completed in smaller chunks and be part of a continuous improvement process rather than a “bandage it and keep it running” approach that results in a massive overhaul every 10 years, possibly at a time of the heaviest production demand.

Michael Gurney is co-CEO of Concept Systems Inc., a Certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. Concept Systems is headquartered in Albany, Ore., U.S.

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