Legacy control system obsolescence is the main driver for migrations in the industry today, as well as the need to avoid the significant cost and risk associated with losing operational control of a process. Companies know they need to migrate to stay competitive, but uncertainty and fear of change hinders forward progress. Whether small or large, migration projects require an enormous amount of work and the risks can be high without the right team of experts and proper planning.
Few, if any, companies enjoy the luxury of having sufficient resources to handle a migration project. The costs associated with such specialized staffing is simply not justified considering these projects only come around once every 20 years or so on a given unit. Most company resources are swamped just keeping existing equipment up and running. There is little or no time to explore the possible incorporation of new smart manufacturing technologies on the market nor manage a complex project.
Invariably, external third-party partners or contractors must be utilized to help implement a major automation upgrade. Naturally, the specific areas of need and extent of the resources varies according to the company and project scope.
So, prior to starting a migration project, what key factors should you consider?
1. Choose Your Migration Partner
Faced with a unique and complex migration project, facility owners often partner with a system integrator, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), or an engineering, procurement, construction (EPC) company to provide the engineering services needed. Each type of service provider brings different strengths to the table, but they also have weaknesses when it comes to executing an automation and controls migration. The table below summarizes some of the strengths and weaknesses of each type.
|OEM||Deep knowledge on their equipment; good expertise with migrations||Limited knowledge on equipment outside of their product portfolio; lack of process knowledge|
|EPC||Disciplined project management practices; one-stop shop for entire scope||Expensive; lack of automation expertise because automation is a small percentage of their business|
|System Integrator||Broad knowledge across a variety of processes and automation equipment; migration experience||Smaller firms may have limited expertise on your process and platform|
From my perspective after 30+ years executing automation projects in various industries, the best partner is a large system integrator (SI) with expertise in your platforms and your processes. Engaging a qualified automation partner who has practical, unbiased platform-independent process control experience working across a range of manufacturing processes and automation technologies will result in a more successful migration project execution.
One of the main benefits of engaging a large SI is their extensive experience with automation projects. A single facility or company will execute only a handful of automation projects a year while a large SI executes dozens of such projects during that same timeframe. This experience often proves invaluable for your automation project, including benefits like:
- Leveraging best practices garnered from numerous automation projects across multiple industries
- The ability to independently compare multiple platform options
- A credible, unbiased external perspective
- The ability to secure stakeholder support throughout the organization
- Experience with multiple vendors and OEMs
- Upfront planning to properly scope and accurately estimate costs
- Total cost of ownership (TCO) evaluation to ensure lifecycle costs are accounted for and clearly communicated
2. Plan Ahead to Prevent Issues Later
As with any large and complex project, you will want to perform an appropriate front-end loading (FEL) engineering effort for successful planning and budgeting. For even greater effectiveness, engage a system integrator who functions as a true project partner as early as possible in the process. This will bring considerable expertise to the team and help utilize proven best practices that will deliver value throughout the new control system’s entire lifecycle.
If you wait to engage an external partner later in the project, many aspects of the scope will already be cast in less desirable ways due to decisions made up front. Changing these decisions late in the project will result in higher cost and delayed schedule compared with getting them set correctly during the FEL phase.
With an appropriate team in place, you should complete the following tasks during the FEL:
- Define a scope aligned with business needs and facility requirements
- Evaluate and select the best platform and project options
- Develop an execution plan and schedule
- Develop an accurate cost estimate and associated justification
- Develop TCO comparisons for different options to select the best alternative and to maximize return on investment (ROI)
- Assess using a phased approach to spread the capital expenditure over a period of years
- Define the risks and determine how to mitigate them. Consider things such as safety, downtime, resource availability, network traffic levels, data integrity and cyber security while there is still the greatest flexibility to deal with them
With everyone working together, you can build a project execution plan based on proven best practices customized to your particular situation. A team approach increases the probability of success, and the resulting plan will minimize risk and maximize ROI.
3. Don’t Replicate, Innovate!
At this point, don’t be content to simply replicate the outdated functionality of your legacy system. Automation system technology has made huge advances in the 20+ years since your legacy system was installed, and trying to make the new system look just like your existing one will minimize the benefits from this investment. A migration is the ideal time to reevaluate your current operations and leverage new technology with a proven methodology to innovate and develop a custom-fit solution that improves safety, operational efficiency, effectiveness and profitability.
Although you don’t want to duplicate it, you should preserve and leverage the positives of your legacy control system. The years of intellectual property configured into your existing system are worth saving and should be combined with the new technologies being implemented. Truly understanding how the legacy system is functioning can reduce development costs and help to optimize the operational and safety features of the new system.
These days it seems every new control system is becoming part of an overall information platform that must connect on many levels. An effective partner will help integrate your modern control system with the various plant and corporate platforms required for operating the facility and managing the business. The same improvements in human-machine interface (HMI) graphics and alarm management incorporated into the new system can be extended to the information coming through these interfaces, improving operational effectiveness, safety and efficiency well beyond the main control system.
To this end, an effective automation partner can maximize effectiveness by:
- Identifying what new technologies to incorporate based on their benefit for your particular situation
- Reverse-engineering the functionality of the legacy system to ensure none of that functionality is left behind
- Critically evaluating automation vendor capabilities to verify their systems can perform as desired
- Establishing integration across multiple platforms, including manufacturing execution systems (MES) and business systems
- Incorporating the latest control functionality – developing effective HMIs, alarm management, compliant safety systems, the latest cyber security defenses and other valuable technology
4. Execute with Discipline … Follow the Plan
As with any large and complex project, migration projects are challenging and need to be managed with discipline. This includes using good project management practices and tools to control cost, scope and schedule to ensure things stay on track. Some of the key elements of executing with discipline include:
- Developing and maintaining a detailed Project Execution Plan
- Creating and communicating a Roles and Responsibilities matrix
- Developing and following a communication plan that defines information flow and project status reporting requirements
- Developing a Risk Register with mitigation plans for each identified risk
- Defining a Quality Plan that is communicated and implemented
- Developing a detailed project schedule that is regularly updated and reviewed with the project team
- Having a project estimate broken down with appropriate work breakdown structure (WBS) granularity that is updated with earned value and regularly reviewed with the project team
- Holding regular team meetings with defined agendas and published minutes
- Maintaining an updated action item log that is readily available to the project team
As a project nears completion, testing and cutover activities become critical, and at this point even a well-thought-out effort can get into trouble. Moving into this phase, several teams are involved, and everyone is anxious to have the new system running. It is not a time to be tying up loose ends that should have been finished weeks before.
If proper testing has not been done prior to cutover, bugs invariably emerge and need to be fixed at a time when many people are watching and waiting. Everything can grind to a halt because some control scheme doesn’t function as needed, leaving all those individuals to wonder why such problems were not fixed long ago. The only way for cutover to proceed smoothly is by performing proper testing and verification BEFORE attempting to run the process with the new control system.
5. Keep the Benefits Going Strong
Many companies see completing a project as an end in itself. The “keys” are turned over to the facility owner, and all the people brought in to work on various elements return home. All the new equipment is left in the hands of the operators and the facility’s engineering and maintenance staff. The question becomes, can the facility sustain the improvements realized by the project?
Again, resource bandwidth becomes an issue as few companies have the numbers of operators, engineers and maintenance people they really need. Small operational setbacks rarely get the attention they should, and one by one, they accumulate and eat into project gains.
Most companies are willing to admit they need help to launch and complete a major migration project, but fewer acknowledge a need for help on an ongoing basis with day-to-day operations. Others have found huge advantages in using external remote monitoring combined with periodic onsite support to help work with in-house personnel after a project is finished.
A service provider that wants to shake hands and immediately leave for its next job is not able to help over the long term. Few automation service providers have the resources or inclination to commit people to an open-ended relationship where there is potential to see the amount of work go up and down as needs change.
A trusted automation partner has a strong sense of how the facility works and what is needed to improve performance. After all, continuous improvement initiatives even in the most recent projects are beneficial, especially once everything is in full operation.
Assigning key people to work with in-house personnel helps build strong relationships with the facility owner and a true partnership over the long term. This partnership is built on mutual benefits, with the partner providing services to help improve performance on an ongoing basis. Facility owners should accept the challenge and team up with the right automation partner to continuously sustain and improve performance on a day-to-day basis.
At the end of the day, pick a partner who can help you sort through all the decisions with both process experience and technical depth and deliver an optimized solution based on your needs, not the features of the technology. After all, there will be no greater impact on the effectiveness of your automation solution than the quality of personnel involved in the implementation.