ARC estimates that $65 billion worth of process automation systems are nearing the end of their useful life. These estimates are even larger if one includes those installed systems that don’t meet the requirements for cybersecurity protection, or leveraging technologies, such as IIoT, cloud computing, advanced process control, mobile devices, social networks, advanced search engines, and big data analytics to create the information-driven enterprise. Automation end users are primarily concerned with preserving their installed plant assets. Unfortunately, control systems and automation equipment are run much longer than IT and other non-manufacturing related assets. At the same time, manufacturers have an enormous challenge with cost justifications.

Arguments for modernizing automation range in severity from being purely business decisions to critical issues that affect plant and worker safety. An older system can hinder the adoption of available new technologies that provide real economic advantages, such as IIoT, cloud, software-as-a service, virtualization, analytics, IT/OT convergence, mobile devices, advanced process control, etc. When it comes to providing maintenance the older systems can be burdened with a high volume of custom code and custom point–to-point integration that make long term support cost prohibitive. Older systems can have opportunity cost implications for the manufacturing plant as well. This is the cost of a business opportunity that was missed because the system was not advanced, flexible, or functional enough to take advantage of a swiftly emerging or fleeting opportunity. Having old or outdated systems installed can result in direct losses if the manufacturer lacks the visibility into plant operations that enables abnormal situation prevention and avoidance of supply chain disruptions. However, the case for modernizing automation is most urgent when the old system reaches the point where an impending plant shutdown or incident is a real possibility, causing unplanned downtime.

Modernizing automation projects are most likely to get approved if they can demonstrate direct support for any of the following four business drivers: plant efficiency, maintenance cost reduction, modifications and expansion, and safety and security. Decision makers care about these business objectives because of their significant impact on the plant’s profitability. Modernizing automation most often involve running operations where downtime translates directly into losses. Good modernization strategies leverage tools and rely on solid project management to reduce downtime and minimize risk.

When a manufacturer decides to take a proactive stance regarding its aging control system, the project can quickly become overwhelming. When the installed base is audited it is easy to discover varying degrees of maturity as well as multiple generations of products and operating systems, all running on a single process. Systems evolve over time with modifications, upgrades, expansions, etc. that may not be well documented by the users. Standards and regulations also evolve over time and the multi-generation installed base may not be uniformly synchronized to meet today’s and tomorrows’ regulatory requirements.

The evaluation process needs to start with the desired end state in mind. Nobody is better qualified to discuss the future role of the manufacturing plant that is evaluating modernizing automation than the plant management and operators. Not all parts of a legacy control system need to be replaced, and the real challenge is flexibility in solutions that allow the manufacturer to preserve the assets worth keeping. Over time, manufacturers have embedded intellectual knowledge into these systems through control configurations, integration with information management, historical data collection, and other applications to ensure that their automation systems performed the fundamental control job that it was purchased to do.

There will be multiple evaluation criteria to consider for modernizing automation. Often the evaluation criterion is not clear and requires tradeoffs. Some examples of these evaluation criteria include hardware, as sometimes it makes sense to keep the existing I/O modules because of the investment associated with the existing wiring. For expansions it may make sense to use newer technologies that reduce wiring requirements, such as wireless and/or fieldbus protocols. For software, the benefits of migration to new software range from active support of cybersecurity, providing the user with better visualization and diagnostic capabilities, seamless integration with business intelligence, production management, analytic software and database utilities, and enhanced communication interface functionalities ranging from open standards, such as OPC-UA, IIoT, SaaS, and Cloud.

For modernizing graphics and HMI devices, if operators are familiar with certain graphics they are likely to view any modifications, such as adherence to ISA-101 standards, as a degradation of their system. This would be a case for graphic preservation or recreation on a different platform. On the other hand it may make sense to redesign the graphics in a scalable fashion to reflect changes in the plant and process, as well as to work with the wireless smart mobile devices that will also be utilized, such as smart phones and tablets. It is important to involve the operators in this process to ensure ownership.

In conclusion, manufacturers should view modernizing automation in the same context as the selection process for a new system. The ideal system should enable focus on business objectives, continuous improvement, and operational excellence. Manufacturers today seek systems that have evolved to provide a single environment, spanning all realms of control disciplines from process to discrete automation and motion control, while also interacting with operations management applications. Information must be provided in the right context, to the right person, at the right time, from any point in the system, and this can only occur by modernizing automation.