Minimize Downtime During Controls Conversions

Not long ago, control system conversion was a huge undertaking. Today, with the help of automation conversion experts and the availability of conversion kits, the process has been streamlined for maximum efficiency.

Randy Best, Interstates Control Systems Inc.
Randy Best, Interstates Control Systems Inc.

As time goes on and technology swiftly advances, controls hardware ages and becomes more difficult to maintain. Manufacturers, who have moved on to newer (faster, better) versions, stop carrying the parts end-users need and halt support for systems that have been phased out.

Running old hardware in your plants can be scary and you likely can’t afford to shut down for three weeks for costly updates and maintenance. Instead of finding yourself in a bind when a circuit board fries or a processor goes bad, consider the benefits of upgrading controls hardware.

Control system hardware conversion kits have revolutionized the process of upgrading. They make it possible for skilled integrators to change out hardware that needs to be replaced without having to rewire all field devices, which was formerly the most time-consuming aspect of upgrading. A skilled, experienced systems integrator can now update a plant in as little as 48 hours.

To achieve results like this, you have to have the right knowledge on board. But be aware that, even with a conversion kit, upgrading hardware isn’t for your average do-it-yourselfer. Not just anyone can perform this work and do it well.

Following these best practices will help result in shorter downtimes and a more successful conversion:

Conduct a Preliminary Audit. The biggest challenge in controls hardware conversions are the unknowns that exist in the plant. To address this, conduct a plant-wide equipment audit, or have a systems integrator do so. This will generate a punch list outlining the status of the plant’s current equipment. Having all equipment labeling in place and equipment position indication correct and marked will ensure an efficient checkout process.

Schedule walk-throughs and visits. Your systems integrator should conduct multiple site visits before shut down for conversion begins. This will alert the team to any changes that have happened to wiring in control panels, discrepancies among documents or drawings, and the current conditions of plant equipment. This audit will also allow integrators to determine if there is enough room in panels for updated hardware.

Have the Right Team In Place. Have a large enough team to work quickly and thoroughly. Key personnel (panel techs, control engineers, and programmers) must be on site, and their coordination is a major factor in the efficiency of the conversion process.

Include Software Updates. After changing out the aging controls hardware, make sure you consider updating your software as well. Programs should be rewritten to bring them up to current standards and take advantage of the new capabilities that come along with your new hardware

Require Documentation. If you choose to upgrade your controls software, you should demand functional requirements specification documents from your integrator and sign off on them when they are satisfactory. This ensures that both parties understand the overall goals of the project and helps avoid miscommunication and different expectations of what “done” looks like.

A good systems integrator will already be using these best practices to achieve fast control system conversions. Avoid integrators offering “basic” or “simple” conversions. For the best results, you’ll want a team that goes beyond the basics. Look for a one-stop shop—an integrator who can replace outdated hardware and also rewrite programs to bring new software into your new hardware. Demand the total package, i.e., an integrator who focuses on preparation to achieve minimal downtime and leaves you with the latest proven technology and current hardware and software versions, bringing you up to date with 21st century support.

With the right expertise, you will avoid the risks of becoming obsolete with your aging control system.

Randy Best is project manager at Interstates Control Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. See Interstates’ profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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