Surviving a control system migration project

Control system migration projects can provide significant value to industrial operations by ensuring a smooth transition to newer technology with virtually no changes to physical wiring or intellectual property.


Figure 1: Retirements within the baby boomer workforce threaten plants running on older control systems. Courtesy: Honeywell Process SolutionsWhen it comes to keeping automation technology up to date, proactive is the new normal. Companies that migrate to a newer, more effective control system gain a key advantage over competitors that wait for assets to reach end of life. The "doing nothing" option is no longer viable.

Automation systems are no longer isolated. With the high levels of integration of the diverse systems integral to plant operations—coupled with significant technology churn in these systems—there is a high likelihood of a technology mismatch within the automation infrastructure. A well-planned and executed migration strategy is now a must.

The convergence of people, parts, and planning issues has created a perfect storm that threatens potential disruptions in the industrial sector. Plant managers cannot afford to have a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to aging automation assets. The lifecycle of electronic components is rapidly shrinking, which requires frequent software and hardware updates. It also can be difficult to find personnel qualified to troubleshoot and repair older control systems (see Figure 1).

In its 2015 report, "Distributed Control Systems Worldwide Outlook," the ARC Advisory Group estimated that $65 billion worth of installed process automation systems in the world today are nearing the end of their useful lifecycles, which, in many cases, can exceed 25 years. Many of these systems—as much as $12 billion worth—are some of the original distributed control systems (DCSs) installed in the late 1970s.

Ironically, many manufacturers treat their business systems and email servers very differently than their process control systems. Companies make a concerted effort to keep IT infrastructure current. The same level of emphasis is not yet common practice for plant automation.

Failure to address looming automation obsolescence issues by "kicking the can down the road" could lead to crucial assets being rendered inoperable if an aging component fails and no replacement is available. This is true of both factory—and third-party—sourced parts. Worse yet, spares obtained from auction sites over the Internet may unknowingly introduce unexpected effects in critical systems. Financial loss or possible unsafe operating conditions from an unplanned outage could far exceed the replacement cost of a discontinued part. 

Anticipating the need for modernization

A legacy control system may still work well after 10, 20, or 30 years or even longer. However, migration to a current automation solution not only minimizes risk of failure, but also opens up a whole range of completely new possibilities.

With updated technology, the remaining economic life of legacy controls often can be extended by 30% to 50%. Replications of controller software and common displays may reduce the engineering effort for control system expansion by up to 50%. Likewise, improved reliability with modernization can enable significant maintenance cost reductions.

It is important for industrial organizations to avoid a scenario whereby they remain in place by investing in certified recycled spare parts and then drop off the face of the Earth at some point in the future due to end-of-life issues. The do-nothing approach carries sizeable risks. Instead, organizations should work with their automation supplier to cost effectively migrate forward. At the end of the technology evolution cycle, the user will have paid for an automation solution that is both modern and state-of-the-art, while maintaining predictable control of his or her capital budget.

A well-executed strategy to address technology obsolescence delivers significant operational and business benefits through seamless integration of new and existing automation assets. At its heart is multi-generation coexistence of control equipment. Plants can integrate multiple generations of systems while retaining intellectual property in native graphics and advanced control applications. By incorporating existing data, events, and operator messages into the control architecture, and establishing a common operator interface, the legacy system appears as an extension of the new automation solution.

In addition, a proprietary hot cutover technique enables the control system to be migrated while operations remain undisturbed. Legacy controllers can be replaced with newer versions on a live process while retaining wiring and cabinets.

Upgrade before operational issues arise

Figure 2: By 2019, control system users will start seeing erosion in the availability of legacy spare parts. Courtesy: Honeywell Process SolutionsIndustrial organizations must immediately do proper planning and budget allocation for control system upgrades to avoid resource scarcity. Leading global automation suppliers have data indicating a large number of legacy DCS nodes and thousands of software licenses will become obsolete/phased out (see Figure 2).

It is clear that inaction on migration strategies is causing existing bandwidth to be underused. By early in the next decade, a crossover will occur where demand for control system upgrades will outstrip the available qualified resources.

Upgrade possibilities for a legacy DCS include:

  • Technology refresh involving replacement of legacy electronics
  • Technology upgrades involving replacement of existing equipment
  • Intellectual property upgrades transitioning to more advanced technology.

As part of good engineering and project management practices, companies should determine the best time to migrate and identify the ideal migration path associated with clearly defined goals. They also should define the project through front-end engineering and use a proven approach with comprehensive checklists and detailed cutover plans.

Increasingly, control system migrations are performed "on-process" using technology that replaces the existing user interface and provides modern functions, while retaining the original system's controllers, field connections, and devices. With this approach, the new automation system operates simultaneously, allowing elements as small as one control loop at a time to be migrated to the new platform. 

Collaborate to reduce costs and risks

By working together, automation suppliers and end users can help plants take advantage of the latest control innovations without compromising their initial investments. In addition, they can use long-term support to maintain intellectual property in graphics and advanced control. Such a holistic view not only ensures facilities have a smooth transition to the latest automation system, it also pinpoints areas of potential improvement.

Typical migration alternatives can include:

  • Moving control to the current hardware to preserve the installed inputs/outputs (I/O) and all of the existing engineering
  • Moving control to the current hardware to preserve the installed I/O and re-engineering the current control software
  • Moving control to the current hardware, upgrading to new I/O, and re-engineering the current control software
  • Removing the control system—including I/O—and completely re-engineering all of the control software.

If properly planned and implemented, control system migrations enable industrial organizations to migrate legacy control platforms at their own pace, allowing new controllers to be added at any time and integrated with existing equipment.

Benefits of modern technology

Unifying people with process, business, and asset management, a modern control solution helps process manufacturers increase profitability and productivity. By integrating disparate data across facilities, making the most of resources and people, and feeding it all into a common automation system, they can achieve improved operational efficiency, greater process reliability, reduced risk, and increased plant productivity with lower operating and capital expenses.

An advanced DCS platform also may employ scalable capabilities for project execution and system management, including virtualization and cloud engineering solutions, and remotely configurable universal I/O cabinets, which allow for late-stage design changes, reduced footprint, and minimal hardware required for implementation. This approach reduces—or even eliminates—marshalling, simplifies engineering and configuration, and saves on installation costs. In addition, the use of advanced collaboration and human-machine interface (HMI) technology enables users to share information across multiple locations and simplify engineering and operations across thousands of distributed assets.

Sustain assets with outcome-based support

Figure 3: Flexible support programs offer agreed service levels rather than prescribed quantities of materials and labor. Courtesy: Honeywell Process SolutionsFollowing migration, some control system suppliers provide control system support programs that offer agreed service levels instead of prescribed quantities of materials and labor. This pay-for-performance approach minimizes the total cost of ownership, guarantees performance, and uses the automation system to improve business results. It is based on shared risk and reward, comprehensive lifecycle coverage, risk and change management, best practices, and a clear support contract with specific performance benchmarks.

With an outcome-based service solution, the customer hands partial or complete responsibility for system support to the automation vendor. The parties agree on scope, outcome levels, and a fixed cost, and the customer maintains governance. The services can be delivered to stabilize existing platforms and/or sustain their performance for a specified period of time (see Figure 3).

When fully executed by the automation supplier with guaranteed system performance, outcome-based support services provide preventive maintenance routines based on proven best practices. They also deploy continuous system monitoring, which offers alerting to support incident management and diagnostic data for reporting, availability, capacity, and problem management. 

Ensuring a seamless transition

Although challenging, control system migration projects have the potential to deliver great value to industrial operations. They ensure a seamless transition to new technology with practically no change to physical wiring and intellectual property. Outcome-based support services also can maintain and enhance automation systems throughout their entire lifecycle, helping to sustain the benefits of asset investments. 

John Rudolph is vice president of Lifecycle Solutions and Services at Honeywell Process Solutions. Edited by Jack Smith, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering,


Key concepts

  • The lifecycle of electronic components is rapidly shrinking, which requires frequent software and hardware updates.
  • Companies should determine the best time to migrate and identify the ideal migration path associated with clearly defined goals.
  • Outcome-based support services can provide preventive maintenance routines based on proven best practices.

Consider this

Define the migration project through front-end engineering and use a proven approach with comprehensive checklists and detailed cutover plans. 


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