Since I’m a controls engineer, I have been to a lot of manufacturing facilities for a lot of different companies—food and beverage companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, mills and printing plants. Even though these are all different industries, they almost all have one thing in common: Some piece of equipment has been there for a long, long time.
The controls on that old equipment should be in the Smithsonian. And, of course, all documentation and schematics are long lost or gone completely, turned to dust or so saturated with oil they’re unreadable. But for every old manufacturing line or piece of equipment, there is “the guy”—the electrician or system engineer who knows everything about it. Not only that, he’s the only one who knows anything about it. And the only reason he knows is because he’s been there for a long, long time.
I was just at a flour mill where the customer said to me, “Yeah, there is only one guy in the United States who can service this thing, and he is about to retire.”
I was caught off guard and nearly speechless, and I thought to myself, “Wow, you are screwed.” But in reality, this situation illustrates a serious issue and a concern that every plant should address before it’s too late. I can think of three plants right now that are all about to lose two or three team members to retirement. A wealth of knowledge is about to go out the door with them.
What are you going to do when your “guy” is no longer there? Sure, there are thousands of system integrators out there that will gladly upgrade the equipment and hardware for you. But as we all know, that is not always economically justifiable.
All your guy’s knowledge might not be salvageable, but whatever you can get is better than nothing. Plan ahead and engage other employees with that piece of old equipment. Don’t call the guy right away. Even if there is just a small project related to that piece of equipment, engage an integrator. Pay someone to pull the knowledge out of your old-timer’s brain and rebuild the documentation. And do it now, before he gets on that sailboat and retires to the islands.
Small investments now could save you a ton in the future.
Bryan Little is project manager/principal engineer at Avanceon, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Avanceon, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.