Automation resource taxation

Today’s engineers are faced with having to keep up on new technologies as well as maintaining older systems, and oftentimes integrating the two. See three examples on automation resource taxation.

By Art Howell March 17, 2015

Is it my imagination, or are today’s automation resources being heavily taxed? Today’s engineers are faced with an onslaught of technology that seems to be growing exponentially. On top of keeping up with all the new technologies, engineers are faced with having to maintain older technologies as well. There are so many varieties of products on the market that the integration of all these different technologies is becoming increasingly taxing, as well. For instance, there are many ways for these devices to communicate information, different network types, and protocols. A basic knowledge of communication networks and protocols is a must.

I was recently called to a plant site where a PC hard drive had crashed. The PC was running an old version of Wonderware HMI and Windows NT. The Wonderware system was communicating with an old Modicon programmable logic controller (PLC) via a serial Modbus communication module and driver. The customer wanted to upgrade the PC to one running the Windows 7 operating system, but due to the limited down time allowances, short timetable, and the existing hardware, software, and driver compatibility issues with Windows 7, options were limited. We were forced to upgrade to a Windows XP system in the interim and come up with an upgrade strategy to get the system running on Windows 7 and the latest version of Wonderware. This would have to be completed at a later date. Because of the age of the system, it was difficult to find a hardware and software remedy; a large amount of time and resources, including both Wonderware and Modicon tech support, were spent trying to come up with the ultimate solution.

Another issue that I frequently see is one in which a customer has an old PLC system and wants to upgrade the system to the latest and greatest technology but doesn’t want to replace the entire system because of downtime and cost. Often times, the processor racks are upgraded and the existing remote I/O racks remain, or the upgrades are done in smaller steps to keep cost and/or downtime to a minimum. The original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are doing a nice job of supplying interface modules and conversion tools for the transitions, but there is a learning curve and risks associated. Generally the old logic has to be converted or modified to complete the integration between the old and new systems. There are also instances in which the processor racks contain I/O modules that had to be upgraded as well. In this case, knowledge of both the older and the newer systems is a plus in completing the task.

With all the advances in technology, these types of issues seem to be happening more frequently. Additionally, too many manufacturers are holding onto old technologies for far too long. Of course, there’s the old adage: “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it!” This might make sense as long as the older systems hold up or parts are readily available in case of a minor breakdown, but one has to weigh the costs of material, repairs, and downtime in the case where a catastrophic failure might occur. Manufacturers often hold onto the old technology until they are forced by the OEMs, suppliers, and the lack of available parts, to replace or upgrade their systems.

Technology gaps also introduce another issue, finding engineering resources that have knowledge of the older systems gets increasingly difficult the longer the old systems remain in place. This can also add to repair and/or replacement costs. Careful consideration must be taken by manufacturers as to how to handle the advancement of technology and the cost of upgrading their systems versus maintaining the existing ones. It may cost more in the long run to maintain the older technology than to replace it.

These are only a few examples of resource taxation. What examples do you have?

This post was written by Art Howell. Art is a senior engineer at MAVERICK Technologies, a leading automation solutions provider offering industrial automation, strategic manufacturing, and enterprise integration services for the process industries. MAVERICK delivers expertise and consulting in a wide variety of areas including industrial automation controls, distributed control systems, manufacturing execution systems, operational strategy, business process optimization and more.