Ensuring a Successful Automation Migration Project

Migrating or upgrading a system can be long and often difficult process, which oftentimes leaves organizations second-guessing the project as a whole. However, there are possible steps to take to make sure everything is easier and successful

David Kelley, lead automation engineer, Panacea Technologies
David Kelley, lead automation engineer, Panacea Technologies

In today’s world, technology is advancing at a breakneck speed, and automation control systems are no exception. Each year may not jump leaps and bounds like other industries, but there have been significant advances that allow more efficient control systems, on demand data analytic tools, and a better overall user interface experience.

However, in manufacturing environments it is a costly endeavor to upgrade to the latest equipment. It is certainly not economical to upgrade each year. To most people, it can even feel like an unnecessary exercise to upgrade at all. Operators could have been running the operation on the legacy equipment for years without any major issue. Process and automation engineers have the ability to update the system whenever maintenance is required. So why change anything?

The most important reasons to upgrade aging automation systems are end of life cycle support and security vulnerabilities. Systems that have reached the end of life are usually no longer supported by the OEM. This means that most security flaws are found postmortem and they will most likely not be patched. This also means that replacement parts are going to become scarce. I have seen companies rush to migrate their aging automation system because they only had a handful replacement parts left.

While it was not impossible to find a new part, the parts they could find were either refurbished on the grey market, or extremely expensive. In regulated industries—such as pharmaceutical and biotech—it is even more important to upgrade to stay compliant with data integrity standards instituted by regulatory agencies like the FDA. Older automation systems were not designed with those standards in mind, so they typically do not have the capability to adhere to them.

If you, or your company, has decided to migrate your existing system, I have outlined some key areas you need to pay attention to for a successful migration below:

  • It is very important to remember when approaching a migration project that it will never be a one to one migration. Even if the automation software or hardware is in the same process family, there have been improvements that have removed or changed past functionality. If you are moving to an entire new process suite, expect many differences. If you try to keep everything exactly the same, the project will almost certainly go over budget and take more time than expected. Painstakingly recreating human-machine interfaces, reports or code that were created 10, 15, or more years ago can be potentially disastrous. You would be holding back the new technology that you are upgrading to and you will not see all the benefits of migrating to a new system. Adapting to change and anticipating it will save a lot of headache during the project and system lifetime. Keeping this in mind also allows you to take full advantage of the new technology.
  • When change becomes anticipated you can open up many opportunities for process improvement. At the beginning of your project, perform a system audit or have an experienced integrator evaluate your system. Use this time to discover any changes not previously documented. Check to see if the existing code could be optimized. During this pre-planning period, interview the daily users of the system to get ideas on how the equipment can better meet the business needs of your company. Not all of the suggestions need to be used, but more often than not there will be great ideas that will increase productivity or efficiency. An added benefit of interviewing your end users ahead of time is that they are more likely to accept or be comfortable with the changes you are planning on making. In the past, I have seen companies ignore their employee’s requests and they in turn heavily resist the changes being made. Once these findings are collected an informed decision can be made on what needs to change, what can stay the same, and how can you maximize gains from the migration.
  • The last key to a successful migration is to accept that not all process improvements need to be made at the beginning of a migration project. It is easy to get carried away thinking about what could make your system better, especially with new technology. Settle on specific areas of improvement for the initial migration and determine what changes you have time for in your schedule. If there are any improvements that can’t be done in the time you have or are not critical to the system, set up a future project to add all remaining changes. Unless it is totally necessary try not to deviate from your original scope once it is set because last minute, rushed changes leave room for oversight and mistakes.

These key guidelines I have outlined are essential tools that can be used in planning or executing a migration project. They can reduce the stress and headache that come with upgrading aging automation equipment. They will not guarantee a smooth migration project, but it will definitely put you and your company on the right path for success.

David Kelley is lead automation engineer at Panacea Technologies, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Panacea, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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