Technology Upgrades Boost Plant Performance

In North America and Western Europe, plants are retrofitting with new technology to get more from existing assets.

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The San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News (SJMN) had a problem with its printing plant. Its four Goss printing presses—which print the SJMN as well as a couple of dozen other newspapers—were at various stages of aging. The existing controls were outdated and consisted of a mix of proprietary technology. Plant managers were scrambling to keep the presses operating.

“We were at risk of losing one or more of our presses, which would mean late papers or color interruption, which would upset our advertisers,” says Joe Boessenecker, operations director at SJMN at the time of the upgrade. “We were hunting down used parts and technicians who used to work on the press. We looked at that and said, ‘We have a few things we need to do.’ We needed to perform better in our press room and shed obsolete technology that was a risk.” To solve the problem, SJMN decided to replace the old systems in what plant managers called a “brain transplant.” It worked with Rockwell Automation Inc., the Milwaukee-based controls vendor, to replace virtually all of the old control architecture, implementing a personal computer (PC)-based press control system on each of the four presses. A new Allen-Bradley control system from Rockwell included Microsoft Windows-based supervisory workstations and centralized control desks. The system included Allen-Bradley software to provide press monitoring and supervisory control, system-wide. The system reports the status and updates of critical parameters such as ink levels, press speed and web-break detection.

The decision to upgrade was based on a clearly defined return on investment (ROI). When plant managers went to management asking for funding, they argued that the new technology would pay for itself in improved performance and reduced risk. “We expected an ROI. We even put dollar figures on late papers,” says Boessenecker. “We gave a number to corporate, saying we would save a quarter million per year. A year later, we’re ahead of where we thought we would be.”

Parts on eBay

The Mercury News isn’t the only plant that has struggled to find expertise and spare parts for aging equipment. The difficulty of finding parts is a common complaint among managers of older plants. “Plant managers have put themselves in jeopardy because they can’t find spare parts,” says Bruce Larkin, manager of field services at vendor GE Fanuc Automation, in Charlottesville, Va. “Some are buying the parts on eBay. Sometimes we have to find the parts for them.”

The need to migrate to better technology at plants is widespread, as many of the plants in the developed world are aging and need to be revamped. “The industry is at a crossroads now, particularly in North America and Western Europe. There is a $65 billion installed base of plants that are reaching the end of their useful life,” says Larry O’Brian, research director for process automation at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass. “If they are not being replaced already, they will be replacing those plants very soon.”

In North America and Western Europe, there is very little new plant building activity. Researchers estimate that 90 percent of plant projects in the developed world involve retooling rather than new plant construction. “We’re not seeing greenfield in North America,” says Phil Couling, program manager for supervisory human-machine interface (HMI) at Wonderware, an automation software vendor based in Lake Forest, Calif. “The greenfield work is being done in Asia and Latin America.”

One of the difficulties in building a new plant in the United States or the Western European countries involves the local hoops that manufacturers must jump through to get permission to build a plant. By comparison, retrofitting an existing plant is cheap. “The Western world is more brownfield than Asia,” says Mark Bitto, global business development manager at automation vendor ABB, in Norwalk, Conn. “That has to do with the cost of putting in a new facility. The approvals needed for a new plant are vastly more expensive than tweaking, upgrading and enhancing an existing facility.”

Some plants are producing at their equipment’s maximum output even before a retrofit. In these cases, the new technology is intended to get data out of the existing assets so that the plant can improve materials handing and gain supply chain efficiencies. If managers can get accurate data from the plant, they can integrate with the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to improve inventory management and deliver accurate information on what’s been produced for what customers.

The goal for some upgrades is simply to get better data from the existing equipment. “The machinery is going as fast as it can, but you can upgrade automation to get data out. Then you can improve the materials flow,” says John Nesi, vice president of market development at Rockwell Automation. “If you link data from the automation system with the ERP, you can shift to just-in-time inventory and cut down the carrying costs on inventory.”

Upgrading the visibility of plant operations can deliver savings even if the plant hasn’t improved throughput or cut downtime. “One of the things they (end-users) want with new technology is the ability to better know where they are in optimizing energy usage and raw materials usage,” says Todd Stauffer, PCS-7 product manager at Siemens Energy and Automation Inc., the Alpharetta, Ga.-based automation supplier. “They want greater visibility to optimize their performance and better serve the customer.”

Brain transplants

As managers retrofit their plants, they also want to extend the use of their existing machinery. The goal is to add new brains to the plant equipment in order to maximize the use and value of assets. “Instead of retooling, they’re changing their antiquated controls. The trend is to extend the life of assets rather than replace them,” says Bruce Larkin, of GE Fanuc. “So they add a new control system to improve maintenance or increase production.”

Plants are trying to avoid investing in expensive hardware. They want to improve the plant without the cost of new equipment and wiring. “Old machinery has crude data production, so you need Ethernet and control system technology to move the data more easily,” says Rockwell’s Nesi. “The bulk of the cost is in the physical machinery and the wiring. So you swap out the brains and leave the I/Os (input/outputs) behind.”

The goal is to keep as much of the plant machinery as possible, while improving its operation and data delivery. “You can make an old plant competitive. We don’t recommend replacing everything,” says ARC’s O’Brien. “Different parts of the automation systems have different rates of aging. Your controllers are going to last a little longer than your workstations. So you start with HMI, workstations and software. Then you work your way down to the control system.”

Plant assets in the developed world are mostly amortized. If a plant can continue to use those assets, it keeps the balance sheet clean. Selling an upgrade to top management is easier if the argument is that the new technology will extend the life of existing assets. “At the end of the day, the concern is maximizing assets,” says ABB’s Bitto. “The upgrade is not technology for technology’s sake. It’s about lowering the total cost of asset ownership.”

Disruption-free upgrades

The plant retrofits, of course, are planned to avoid disrupting production. Some plants schedule their retrofit to match year-end scheduled downtime. Other plants swap out old technology while the plant is in full production. “They don’t want to disrupt an installed system,” says ABB’s Bitto. “Their number-one goal is making product, and you don’t want to have impact on actual production. They want the changes without going offline.”

Keeping the plant running during an upgrade is often paramount. “Downtime is a big concern, maybe the biggest concern during an upgrade in technology,” says ARC’s O’Brien. “One unplanned downtime could eliminate profit for a year, so plants are trying to avoid downtime even while they’re upgrading.”

Plants are also seeking a smooth transition and standardized integration as a way to avoid the costs of customized automation. “Suppliers are putting more and more resources into automating the whole transition and preserving assets,” says ARC’s O’Brien. “Suppliers are also shifting to standardization, since custom integration is expensive. In past years, custom integration was the most expensive part of the project.”

Plant managers are turning to new technology to improve operations, from traditional throughput gains to reduced downtime. But even if the plant is running at high efficiency, managers still see opportunities to makes gains in material handling and inventory control. For this, they want data from the automation system. And they don’t want to build a new plant to get these gains. Likewise, they don’t want to buy new hardware. Instead, they’re taking their existing assets and adding new technology.


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