Legacy Upgrade—Just Do It

June 30, 2015
Though Honeywell Process Solutions is clearly proud of its ability to support control systems that have been in the field for 40 or more years, enough is enough. In many of these cases, the time to upgrade is now.

The theme for this year’s Honeywell Users Group (HUG) Americas Symposium, “40 Years of Innovation,” was not only a nod to 40 years of HUG, but also recognition of Honeywell’s commitment to supporting legacy controls that are some 40 years old. It’s clearly a source of pride for Honeywell Process Solutions, but it also seems to be a thorn in their side.

On a tour through the booths of HUG’s Knowledge Center on the eve of the conference, Brendan Sheehan, senior marketing director for Honeywell, seemed very proud of his company’s long history of supporting equipment, speaking of “automation that is 40+ years old that connects to our latest and greatest.”

Honeywell has helped customers keep producing on their original equipment while connecting through the latest interfaces. “We literally don’t leave our customers behind,” Sheehan said. “It’s very, very hard to do that.”

But by the next morning, it was clear that what gives Honeywell pride can also give them some major headaches.

Andy D’Amelio, HPS’s vice president of sales for the Americas, also spoke of the 40-year-old equipment still out in the field during his presentation at the HUG general session. “We still have over 11,000 boxes out there that were installed in the ‘70s,” he said.

But then he whipped out a mobile phone. A 40-year-old mobile phone. You know, one of those big, boxy early models that nobody would be caught dead with today. He bought it off of eBay, and it still works.

“This phone was created in the same era as those systems, and we’d think it’s pretty silly to be using it now,” D’Amelio said.

Hmmmm… Maybe pride isn’t all Honeywell is feeling about those legacy systems?

“We need to work together to replace some of this old equipment, which I know is still working,” D’Amelio said, describing some of the difficulties the legacy systems can present. “We have to find a way to work through these issues together. Continuous evolution only works if we continue to evolve. Once we become stagnant, it becomes much, much harder.”

Certainly, there seems to be a struggle between wanting to keep those legacy systems going for their customers and reaching a point where that becomes a more and more expensive proposition rife with difficulties. So in a private interview, I asked Bruce Calder, HPS’s chief technology officer, what gives. Are these 40-year-old legacy systems a source of pride or a source of consternation?

“We’re proud of that legacy,” Calder said. “But if customers don’t get off that stuff, they’re going to get caught.”

Systems can be decades old and not fail, but that doesn’t mean that production is optimized where it should be. Manufacturers need to make informed decisions about what their systems are truly capable of rather than making inertia-based decisions. Eventually, the systems are not doing the job they need to do, and the old parts will run out even on eBay.

The whole situation makes me think about my mom, who limped along for years, trying to avoid the inevitable hip replacement. The hip that she’d had replaced some 40 years earlier used cement to affix the prosthesis to the bone. The cement breaks down over time, causing everything to become loose and thus eventually requiring another hip replacement.

My mom worried about the pain of replacement, and also about the amount of time she’d be out of commission if she had the surgery. So she put it off. And put it off. Eventually, things deteriorated so much that her doctor pressed the issue and she really had no choice if she wanted to keep walking at all.

She moved forward with the hip surgery, and ultimately was amazed not only at how quickly she recovered, but how good she felt afterward and how well she was able to walk again. She wished she had taken care of it years earlier.

It’s a similar situation to what manufacturing operations face as they continue to limp along with their 40-year-old control systems. The pain and downtime they consider with replacing the system seems so great, they continue to choose the known entity that is their old system. When they finally make the replacement, they more often than not realize how much money, time and effort they could’ve saved all along if they’d made the switch sooner.

“There’s always room for improvements in terms of optimizing the system,” said Ziad Kaakani, system engineering manager at HPS. “When the customer moves to a newer system, they’re going to be more profitable.”

Honeywell is trying to make that transition as quick and painless for its customers as possible. The idea is to pull a card, swap things over, and it’s done (yes, perhaps that’s an oversimplification on my part). “That’s the kind of migration we’re providing. But customers have to do it,” Calder urged. “For their own good, they’ve got to move forward.”

Pointing to the shockingly old installed base, Larry O’Brien, vice president of process automation for the ARC Advisory Group, asked whether industry was on the verge of a great leap forward. The answer, in fact, has much to do with what Calder called in his presentation “a transformative time in process control.” He pointed to the cloud, Big Data, predictive analytics, connectivity, the Industrial Internet of Things—the merging of technologies that is taking industry by storm.

“It was possible to keep the stuff going, and we kind of did,” said Steve McGeorge, director of solutions marketing for HPS. “But things weren’t moving as quickly then as they are now.” He spoke of the skills gaps created by retiring workers, and noted that the legacy systems are a totally different technology base that new employees won’t understand.

“A few years ago, we were talking about pushing them forwards. I think they can get it now,” McGeorge said, referencing D’Amelio’s phone example. “People will have to make some decisions on their equipment.”

HPS will support customers’ legacy systems as long as possible—arguably longer than any other automation supplier out there. But even Honeywell has to say enough is enough. “We’re setting some deadlines,” Calder said. “We have to.”

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