Modernizing automation for competitive advantage

Technology Update: Modernizing equipment and facilities to take advantage of the newest trends that optimize efficiency is called intelligent modernization. Big data access and analysis from the plant to the enterprise are key to any automation and controls modernization. See 3 steps to intelligent modernization.

By John Boville November 26, 2014

Infrastructure in the United States is aging at an alarming pace. In fact, nearly three-fourths of U.S. manufacturing plants are more than 30 years old. Harnessing data at the machine and plant level is critical to understanding the manufacturing process and making crucial upgrades.

Coupled with other drivers such as globalization, manufacturers in the U.S. need to modernize effectively to compete with lower cost countries. The current landscape rewards the manufacturers that can be most productive, while incurring the least cost. This means that manufacturers need to put a premium on driving efficiency. For many this translates to modernizing equipment and facilities to take advantage of the newest trends that optimize efficiency. This is called intelligent modernization.

One of the most important aspects of an intelligent modernization strategy involves big data. The collection of and access to data remains one of the easiest ways to modernize effectively to increase efficiency. 

Less downtime, more efficiency

For example, downtime is one of the most costly issues a manufacturing plant faces. ARC Advisory Group estimates the cost of lost production due to downtime to be $20 million per year. A data-driven strategy to upgrade plant infrastructure can give insight into the causes of downtime and offer the ability to predict downtime events before they happen. This can help plant managers achieve productivity gains of up to 5%, or billions of dollars over time.

Energy use also greatly impacts the manufacturing process. A data-driven modernization strategy can also give access to energy data, which can be used to discover how usage is impacting operations. To save energy, traditional strategies have looked at ways to reduce actual machine usage with productivity trade-offs. However, analysis of energy data allows plant managers to increase process energy efficiency. By understanding the data behind your machine or facility’s energy use, plant managers can pinpoint specific causes of waste, allowing them to improve one area of their operations without a loss of productivity or disruption to their total operation. 

Newer transparency

Manufacturers can’t execute a data-driven strategy without modern equipment. Many would agree that modern equipment is easier to support. Spare parts and support are readily available, and equipment tends to be more reliable than older models. More importantly, modern equipment offers better data transparency, both across the plant and at a machine level.

This transparency improves total cost of ownership, enabling better equipment diagnostics and ultimately longer equipment lifetimes. In addition, modern equipment runs faster, with larger memory and more powerful instructions. These gains translate to systems with greater throughput and higher levels of efficiency and safety. 

Harnessing big data

To take advantage of the power of data for intelligent modernization, plant managers need to know exactly which data to harness and how to analyze it to create better understanding. Traditionally, manufacturers have used internal personnel and resources to implement modernization projects. However, cost pressures are forcing most manufacturers to focus on their core business, shifting resources away from upgrades or proactive improvements. Leveraging an outside expert can help manufacturers achieve the greatest return on investment (ROI) on a modernization strategy by making the most of new technologies, like big data.

An expert can show a plant manager where to start and how to harness data, and provide ongoing monitoring and guidance to help the manager generate the most additional revenue from upgrades to production equipment. An expert can typically build an execution plan specific to the plant’s needs, with guaranteed results against a set of defined goals.

An expert resource can help manufacturers showcase results for all key stakeholders. Most manufacturers need to show improvement to many different key performance indicators (KPIs) to demonstrate the ROI of a modernization solution. Outside vendors with the right expertise can help measure improvement for all KPIs in place and show value for all the interested parties in the plant. 

Barriers to intelligent modernization

The most common challenge manufacturers face when implementing a modernization strategy is getting funding. However, smart modernization, if executed properly, will offset capital dollars with a greater increase in efficiency. Most modernization projects have very good ROI, which enable mangers to build a sound business case to fund such projects and achieve their goals.

An additional challenge comes in learning how to design a system for long-term support. For a manufacturing plant to run effectively, all plant systems must be maintained and supported on an ongoing basis. While this may seem like a given, many manufacturers neglect to plan for contingent events that can drastically impact operations. Manufacturers can mitigate this risk by investing in the design of a long-term support plan that puts steps in place to deal with the loss of a skilled worker or equipment malfunction. 

3 steps to intelligent modernization

Intelligent modernization can provide a host of benefits to a manufacturer. Gains in productivity, reduced cost, and increased competitiveness are just a few results of a smart modernization strategy.

1. Technology trends like big data are a key pillar of intelligent modernization, but managers need to form a plan to make the most of this new technology. Developing an execution plan is key in taking advantage of big data tools to minimize downtime and improve operations.

2. Next, manufacturers should choose the right partner to execute their modernization projects. Project management and site coordination are key to ensuring smooth project execution. The right partner will provide the project management, training, and resources to help achieve your stated goals and possibly identify new things you can do to improve operational efficiency.

3. Finally, manufacturers must develop a support plan for new technology. This includes personnel training, maintenance contracts, and a repair strategy. Small investments in a long-term support plan now, will pay major dividends later.

– John Boville is plant solutions marketing manager, Schneider Electric; edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering,

Key concepts

  • Competitive advantages come from plant modernization.
  • Intelligent modernization can help optimize efficiency when modernizing equipment and facilities to take advantage of the newest trends; see 3 steps.
  • Big data and analysis from the plant and enterprise help with automation modernization.

Consider this

When will the "don’t fix it because it’s not broken" attitude cease to be enough to stay competitive? 

ONLINE extra 

See two related articles below covering remote monitoring via Internet of Things and big data, and predictive maintenance strategies that leverage data.