Obsolescence is no defense

As with all technology, industrial automation products eventually become obsolete. However, with careful planning and proper maintenance, end-users can continue to realize a return from their automation investments for years, even decades. Here are 10 tips from system integrators who know how to keep an automation system running on a budget.

02/01/2006


As with all technology, industrial automation products eventually become obsolete. However, with careful planning and proper maintenance, end-users can continue to realize a return from their automation investments for years, even decades. Here are 10 tips from system integrators who know how to keep an automation system running on a budget.

  1. Stockpile spare parts
    Within the first few years of operation it should become obvious which parts of the automation system fail most often. Buy plenty of spares, especially if the vendor has already introduced new versions that are not backwards compatible.

  2. Choose reliable vendors
    Many automation products have become commodities with very similar features. If all else is equal, buy from the vendor with a track record supporting legacy systems. A little-known vendor with a short history may not be around in 10 years to help with upgrades; but if the technology is superior, it might be worth the risk.

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    Learn from history

    Remember the effort and rework required for past upgrades, especially the installation of new software versions. Stick with system integrators that have proven to be reliable on such projects and with vendors that have provided pain-free migration paths to their latest technology.

  4. Start with the best
    Avoid buying products that are already approaching obsolescence. Life cycles vary, but any technology on the market for over 10 years is likely to be supplanted in the near future. Nevertheless, be sure that the latest technology has at least enough of a track record to demonstrate its effectiveness.

  5. Plan ahead, but not forever
    Consider the expected life span of the process being automated. If it is unlikely to be operational for more than a few years, there's no need to invest in an automation system that will outlive it. On the other hand, processes that require high reliability-and-availability ratings should not be run with outdated or dilapidated automation-components.

  6. If it ain't broke don't fix it
    Upgrade to the new version only if it fixes an existing problem or provides a must-have feature. Resist the temptation to buy every upgrade or product enhancement. If the automation system is working well enough, leave it alone. If new software versions come out every few years, consider skipping a version or two. [Be aware of the date after which your vendor no longer will support or upgrade your version.]

  7. Standardize
    Choose open-industry standards or proven technology that is sufficiently widespread to be the de facto standard—such as IEC 61131-3 programming tools, Ethernet communications, Microsoft Windows operating systems. Make the most of your spare parts inventory; use a limited number of brands for replaceable parts, such as I/O modules, PCs, and instrumentation. Using off-the-shelf components helps.

  8. Modularize
    Simplify parts replacement by designing both the hardware and the software as collections of functionally independent modules, connected with well-documented interfaces. Make sure that panels, consoles, I/O racks, and such are constructed with enough space to remove one part without disassembling everything else.

  9. Get an outside perspective
    End-users are often unaware that some of their equipment is no longer repairable or replaceable. Have a third party assess the existing system's exposure to obsolescence and document the risk areas. Don't wait until a program crashes or a part fails before ascertaining whether it's replaceable or not.

  10. Consider alternative sources
    Don't give up on an existing automation system just because it's old. Even after key components have become extinct, many automation systems can be maintained thanks to e-Bay and third parties specializing in replacing, repairing, and stockpiling obsolete hardware.





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