Justifying the changing landscape of control system modernization

While some justifications for control system modernization projects have remained virtually unchanged for decades, others such as workforce shortages, cybersecurity and sustainability are relatively new considerations. See 6 control system update justifications.

By Ian Burns June 12, 2023
Courtesy: Applied Control Engineering Inc.


Learning Objectives

  • Understand the primary drivers for control system modernization projects.
  • Learn how burgeoning trends such as the growing emphasis on cybersecurity and sustainability can justify control system modernizations.

Control system insights

  • Hardware and software obsolescence remain the predominant driver for control system modernizations.
  • Modernizations spurred by increasingly stringent cybersecurity requirements also have become more common in recent years.
  • Corporate sustainability initiatives also may require that control systems be updated for tighter, more efficient controls and more accurate measurements of progress.

Justifying a control system modernization project is a task that many plant support personnel or corporate engineers may be required to do. The reasons for this have changed over time. While some drivers never go away, others have evolved, and still more are new.

1. When automation lifecycle support ends

The predominant driver for control system modernizations has always been hardware and software obsolescence and end of lifecycle support. This is sometimes referred to as “depreciation.” As suppliers upgrade their products and introduce new lines, previous offerings are phased out. As a result, manufacturer support becomes more expensive and may even cease altogether. Having spares on hand can mitigate this issue, but only until the spares run out or board level repair service is no longer offered. Furthermore, as systems age, failures occur more often. And while the number of spares may seem likely to hold out for years, it may be the case that the laptops used for programming require obsolete operating systems and are therefore difficult to replace if they are lost or damaged. The possibility of downtime and other risks associated with unsupported and obsolete equipment therefore remain a key driver for modernizations.

2. Cybersecurity risks in older control systems

Another major driver that continues to evolve is cybersecurity. The core concerns surrounding control system cybersecurity have been around for decades. However, the 2010 publicization of Stuxnet coupled with the release of NIST’s Cybersecurity Framework several years later has increased interest in the field. As a result, many new cybersecurity technologies are available for new control systems. Whereas previously, ICS cyber controls may have been limited to using a second NIC card for network isolation, current security programs are likely to include firewalls, access control, anti-virus (or other EDR), automated backup and intrusion detection. These controls are more cost effective when paired with a control system modernization.

3. Next-generation control systems with embedded retiree knowledge

The workforce driver also has changed in the past 10 to 15 years. Previously, the primary concern was the anticipated retirement of baby boomers who made up a large portion of manufacturing workers, which could lead to the loss of institutional knowledge. That trend has already been borne out; many experienced manufacturing workers have already retired. Moreover, COVID-19 and the Great Resignation have accelerated their exodus. Companies that didn’t capture institutional knowledge or implement new control systems before their departure are now at a major disadvantage. Other workforce concerns include the tight labor market and labor shortages. New workers must be trained to operate and support the control systems, which takes time. Plus, once those workers have been trained, they also must be retained. Shortening the training time through use of a digital twin is one possible solution. Another is the implementation of human-machine interfaces (HMIs) that support good design practices. Examples of features that facilitate this include situational awareness graphics and alarm management features that allow workers to find and respond to the information they need, when they need it. This allows them to spend time learning plant processes and troubleshooting production issues.

Updating a control system requires justification. Are you including these six reasons in your calculations? Courtesy: Applied Control Engineering Inc.

Updating a control system requires justification. Are you including these six reasons in your calculations? Courtesy: Applied Control Engineering Inc.

4. Control system modernization justification: Safety

Other justifications exist for control system modernization. For example, electrical safety and arc flash protection has come to the forefront in recent years. Safety is often the leading value for manufacturers and older control panel designs; extensive use of 120VAC I/O needs to be reviewed. When integrating AC voltages for controls, a new enclosure can segregate the dangerous voltages from low voltage equipment. In these cases, an electrical safety budget may be tapped to help fund a modernization project.

5. Control system upgrade justification: Continuous improvement

Another new driver is continuous improvement methodologies that aim to squeeze more value out of limited plant resources. While companies have always tried to maximize the productivity of their operating equipment, the control system has become a more integral part of that effort today. Gathering data and sharing it with a manufacturing execution system (MES) that is performing overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) calculations is an example of this. It allows plants to dedicate resources to addressing the highest value problems rather than chasing the squeaky wheel that operations staff complain about, which may have little effect on the bottom line. A control system that is unable to interact fully with the MES is ripe for modernization. Removing paper records and double entry is an area that can save a plant money and eliminate errors by integrating the control system with other systems on site, and also can be used to help justify the project. Big data initiatives, predictive maintenance and analytics also fall within this category. All of this entails getting contextualized information to the right person in the right place through the right tool.

6. Modern control systems help sustainability efforts

Finally, the last driver for modernization is sustainability. With sustainability goals prevalent among manufacturing companies, operators should evaluate if their control system can support those goals. If not, a control system modernization project may need to be part of the corporate sustainability push. Having a control system that allows for the optimization of equipment usage is one way. That optimization — especially in site utilities where there are multiple boilers, chillers and air handlers — is an easy win for sustainability. Many plants are replacing fixed-speed motor starters with VFDs. These can be more energy efficient, and there is a measurable payback. Having a control system that allows for process changes to reduce waste and off-spec products also falls under sustainability as this helps companies reduce waste. To meet these sustainability goals, a control system modernization project may be required.

Funding any modernization will require a justification. At the end of the day, end-users need to ask,  “Does the existing system meet our reliability, sustainability, training and continuous improvement goals while also meeting our high standards of safety and security?” If their old system is not meeting those standards, it is important to include the requirements — and resulting justification — in the modernization project.

Ian Burns is president at Applied Control Engineering Inc, a Control Engineering content partner. Edited by David Miller, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, dmiller@cfemedia.com.


Can you guarantee benefits to a manufacturer’s bottom line when undertaking a control system modernization project?

Author Bio: Ian Burns is president of Applied Control Engineering Inc.