Nervous About the Elephant in the Room? It May be Time to Modernize

If you’re like most organizations, you have at least one large, unavoidable issue that has gone unaddressed for too long. You may not acknowledge it, but it’s always there. And it’s not going away on its own.

It’s the elephant in the room, and it could be any number of things.

It could be OEE. Perhaps you’re unsure of how to measure it, or you’re already measuring it but still tormented by poor asset optimization or a tendency to overproduce as a cushion against production shortfalls. You may even know what changes you need to make to be more competitive, but your current control and information system is preventing you from making them.

Scott Lapcewich

Maybe it’s obsolescence. Your 20- to 30-year-old equipment may work fine today, but what if it breaks down? Do you still staff a specialist who can troubleshoot and repair it? And do you have all of the necessary MRO parts to support that repair?  If not, does the vendor still have the resources if all else fails? There’s also the day-to-day challenges that legacy systems bring: they’re not flexible, they’re prone to nuisance shutdowns, they use too much energy, and more.

Or perhaps it’s safety. Are your employees purposely bypassing a safety system to keep production moving? Does your decades-old machine fall short of current safety requirements? Regardless, nobody wants a worker to suffer an injury knowing it could have been prevented.

Whatever your elephant is, the key to addressing it may lie in modernizing your operations.

Modernization vs. Migration

The concepts of modernization and migration are often considered one and the same, but they are not.

Migration typically involves replacing a single legacy technology with its modern equivalent. A single technician can usually do the job.

Modernization, on the other hand, is a big-picture effort. It involves rethinking applications and upgrading multiple technologies, and it requires the support and buy-in of multiple teams. It can transform your processes and help solve your biggest challenges (i.e. that pesky elephant). And it can reposition your operations for the next 20 to 30 years.

Modernization has been critical to helping organizations move to a Connected Enterprise. Upgrading to the latest information-enabled technologies and seamlessly connecting the plant floor to enterprise-level IT systems has created ubiquitous data that previously couldn’t be accessed.

This data is helping improve awareness in both assets and workers. For example, new servo drives can use self-diagnostics and automatically make tuning adjustments to help optimize machine performance. At the same time, machine data contextualized into actionable information is helping workers make more informed decisions at every level, from refining machine processes to improving facility capacity planning.

Considerations for Rolling Out

Modernization is a journey. It requires investments, technology overhauls, multi-stakeholder buy-in and an implementation strategy. As a result, don’t expect to complete it overnight.

Some organizations choose to implement during a planned downtime event. This requires careful planning and coordination, including bringing in the right mix of tools, people and resources all at once to successfully complete the project within a scheduled shutdown.

Others choose a phased approach, which can involve upgrading operations line by line and plant by plant across a stretch of months or even years. This approach is especially appealing if your modernization project involves several plants around the world, or if you need to disperse project costs across a long period of time.

A modernization project should begin with an in-depth analysis of your existing industrial and IT assets. A full accounting of your assets and their condition can be an exhausting process, and doing it yourself can take a year or longer for just one facility.

Installed-base-evaluation (IBE) services can collect hardware and software data across multiple sites in mere weeks. And the IBE results can provide a clear assessment of your current risks while indicating opportunities for you to improve production flexibility, speed and quality.

The IBE data also can help you identify costs associated with maintaining your legacy systems, such as spare parts costs. This can help you justify the modernization investments.

Tackle Your Biggest Challenges

Modernization can help you address a range of pressing issues. For example:

Improve OEE Tracking: When it comes to measuring OEE, many manufacturers and industrial operators manually collect data and enter it into a spreadsheet. That approach can be prone to human error and even human data corruption. Manual data collection also cannot capture real-time information. This can restrict your ability to pinpoint the root cause of downtime issues or to monitor production nuances, such as brief slowdowns or stoppages.

The latest technologies that integrate real-time control and information can connect to OEE analytics software. The result? Automated data-collection and reporting processes, and improved OEE data accuracy. This enables you to pinpoint specific causes of inefficiency, as well as measure and compare performance across plants, lines, shifts and machines.

Address Safety Concerns: Safety doesn’t need to exist in a black hole with minimal visibility into what’s happening. It also doesn’t need to restrict your equipment from being accessible and flexible.

Contemporary safety technologies offer access to safety-system data, including device and operational status, error or fault codes, event sequences and stoppage codes. Safety professionals can use this data to better understand safety risks, such as tracking safety-device usage and comparing anticipated exposure rates against actual exposure rates. The data also can provide insights into safety-related downtime to help improve plant productivity.

Modern safety systems also are central to the growing collaboration between human workers and robots. The safety system can slow a robot to a safe speed or reduce its torque, enabling humans and robots to work together and interact in the same cell with less risk.

Improve Flexibility: Flexible control systems enable you to do more with your equipment and can reduce changeover times.

For example, a brewing company that needed to modernize its filling equipment to keep up with demand incorporated new HMI hardware and software that allowed operators to store and recall recipes. The upgrade helped speed up changeovers when switching between beers.

“Fast changeovers are crucial when you’re a craft brewery producing 22 different types of beer throughout the year, and only 12 of those are brewed year-round,” the brewery’s president said. “The new filler allows easy switchover from year-round to seasonal brews.”

Strengthen Industrial Security: In the age of data breaches, security is on everyone’s mind. And the threat landscape is growing every day.

Defense in depth (DiD) is considered a security best practice. It assumes that any one point of protection can and likely will be defeated, and uses multiple layers of defense to protect against security threats across six levels: policy and procedure, physical, network, computer, application and device.

Modern control technologies with built-in security features can support a DiD security approach. At the device level, for example, the latest controllers incorporate digitally signed and encrypted firmware to help protect against malicious firmware downloads. At the application level, production software can verify user identities before granting them system access and use change-detection capabilities to track unauthorized changes.

Ease the Workforce Transition: The young workers who will be replacing your most experienced employees – either today or in the near future – likely won’t be familiar with your legacy technology. This can create maintenance challenges, with the “tribal knowledge” that is often used to support this equipment at risk of leaving with retiring workers.

Younger workers also may simply have no desire to learn or use legacy technologies. Instead, they’ll likely prefer to join a company where the technology on the plant floor resembles the technology they use in their daily lives.

The Cost Conundrum

Let’s face it: Most organizations strapped with legacy equipment understand the benefits of modernization. Their challenge comes in getting the funds required to implement a sizable modernization project. But they shouldn’t let this stop them.

Instead, they should seek out vendors with creative contract models that allow them to modernize over a longer period of time while still receiving uninterrupted support for their legacy equipment. This can be an especially invaluable option during times of tightening capital expenditures.

By modernizing industrial control systems, you can help your operations achieve more and bring them into the era of increased connectivity and information sharing.

Scott Lapcewich is vice president and general manager, customer support and maintenance, for Rockwell Automation. Lapcewich joined Rockwell Automation in 2002 and has been responsible for the customer support and maintenance (CSM) services business since 2015.  Th CSM business has more than 2200 employees around the world to support and enable the growth of Rockwell’s product businesses, as well as to help customers optimize the performance of their plant operations.  

This article was originally published on IndustryWeek, a companion site of American Machinist.

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