A real world example
Legacy control systems are abundant throughout manufacturing. Your most important assets are being controlled by obsolete hardware and software that are in many cases decades old. But, replacing a perfectly functioning control system is one of those capital projects that keeps getting pushed off since there is often no clear financial justification. Afterall, spare parts for both the automation hardware and PCs are readily available on the gray market. A like-for-like migration will lower your downtime risk, but it won't increase your efficiency or reduce your costs.
Starting a digital transformation, however, may justify that legacy control system replacement.
One of our Specialty Chemical clients pushed off a legacy control system replacement year-after-year since the capital expense could be better used to optimize their operations elsewhere. However, they knew it was a matter of time before the gray market hardware dried up. As we sat in initial meetings, we began discussing pain points in the current process. The more we probed, the more we realized that there was an opportunity to make the process significantly more efficient and significantly more profitable.
While the process itself was fairly automated, each batch required massive amounts of labor to verify each step in the batch and significant manual validation that it meets the customers' requirements. Each batch contained hundreds of pages of work instructions, manual records, signatures, chart recorder output and QA reports. Furthermore, customers on occasion rejected batches due to the paperwork not being complete or data not being recorded correctly.
The customer was very excited as we began discussing how we could make the process more efficient by streamlining the manual processes and providing real time process data to the front office and non-siloed data to their customer via a cloud portal. Furthermore, upgrading the control system gave the site the ability to add smart sensors to the process, providing data that QA could use to identify potential formulation issues early in the batch. An artificial intelligence application could then utilize correlations developed by QA along with real time data in the process to predict issues early enough and provide recommendations to correct the batch, thus reducing the number of lost batches.
A like-for-like upgraded control system would have added no additional value to the facility. It would not increase capacity, reduce waste or make the operations any more efficient. The facility would end up with new hardware and a fancy new operator interface that looked pretty but did the exact same thing the old one did. It would have been a short-sided investment because no one developed a strategic road map for the facility.
When looking to modernize, spend the time and money up front to develop a strategic roadmap for your modernization. Look beyond traditional solutions such as like-for-like replacement or islands of digital functionality. The digital transformation is as much about strategy as it is technology. What got you here today will not get you to where you need to be tomorrow.
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Tim Malyszko is the founder of Intelligent Industrial Strategies. When he’s not serving his clients, he can be found on the golf course or creating a new piece of art in his woodworking shop. He calls St. Louis, Missouri home.
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