Regardless of whether you want to increase productivity or shorten time-to-market, attaining success in these areas depends on the application of suitable automation technologies in a batch processing plant. Following are the principal steps involved in assessing your plant’s technology to gauge whether a technology upgrade or migration is in order:
1. Consider the full range of aspects that relate to your existing systems, such as:
- Risk of unplanned plant downtime and production stoppages;
- Ability to expand production or introduce new products;
- Ability to integrate with enterprise-level business software and at what cost;
- Ongoing maintenance costs;
- Need for continuing support of the legacy system; and
- Effect on the efficiency and productivity of plant personnel.
2. In each case of upgrade or migration, return on investment plays a crucial role. A huge investment in hardware and application software is associated with the installed process control system, as well as the accumulated know-how of the operating, engineering and maintenance personnel. For this reason, the prime objective of any migration strategy should be to modernize the installed base gradually without any system discontinuity and, if possible, without any plant downtimes or loss of production that would negatively affect the investment return.
3. Assess the long-term security of existing investments. This assessment is important in order to maximize the return on assets (ROA). For this reason, every migration should include a robust lifecycle support strategy for the new system that considers not only the availability of the components, but also product warranties, on-site service, and ongoing technical support.
4. Obsolescence. When deciding whether to upgrade or migrate to a new system, there are two aspects of obsolescence to assess. In a migration, it’s important to understand the history of the technologies supported by the company behind the product under consideration. Does this company actively support the long-term lifecycles of products as they are typically employed in a process operation? Do upgrades have significant backwards compatibility? How often are upgrades typically released for this system and what is required for installation? For upgrades, it’s important to understand what the future outlook is for the system under consideration. With the significant maintenance and security issues tied to process control systems, you should always consider your risk of system obsolescence and the associated costs incurred with such a scenario vs. the costs of moving to a better-supported system. The good news is that, in the process industries, most vendors are very aware of the long-term use of their systems by end users and thus tend to support their systems for multiple decades rather a single decade, as is more common with office IT systems. As newer automation technologies become core components of process control systems, be sure to talk with your supplier about their support plan for those newer technologies.