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Dealing with legacy systems in industry

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Nick Boughton, sales manager at Boulting Technology, discusses best practice for obsolescence management from a systems integrator point of view

The control system in a factory is what a motor is to a car, and when something is amiss, the systems integrator will analyse, design, fit and test, to make sure the system is better than ever and raring to go. However, there’s a topic that we’re finding crops up time and again.

The debate between upgrade vs repair is by no means a new one, but it has become prevalent as most industries look to squeeze margins. Certain sectors have long had to carefully manage obsolescence due to their delicate nature.

For example, pharmaceuticals manufacturing is well known for being heavily regulated and so sourcing spare parts instead of committing to a systems upgrade generally means saving time, money and a whole lot of paperwork. 

For a start, not everyone has the luxury of being able to afford a complete upgrade. On the flip side of the coin, not everyone has the choice of relying on spares. No matter what the client chooses, the role of a systems integrator is to complete the job to the highest standard using the tools available to us.

Every job is different and usually comes with its own unique challenges that determine whether an upgrade is even possible. For example, Boulting Technology was recently called out to a factory manufacturing glass bottles to update the control system for its production process.

The interesting thing about this job was that in the process, a kiln was automatically fed broken glass every five hours to keep it alive and to keep the production line moving. If the conveyor feeding glass into the kiln stopped and the oven cooled, the kiln would no longer be in a working condition. It was imperative for us to work around the issue.

If we return to the car metaphor, we had to remove the old engine and replace it with a new one, but keep the wheels turning at all times. We achieved this by implementing the new control system in phases and ensuring that a motor was running the conveyor at all times.

In this case a complete upgrade was not plausible due to the nature of continuous production, which just goes to show that sometimes the choice is taken out of the hands of the client altogether.

Downtime is the dreaded risk when companies decide either to upgrade or make do and source spares. In an automotive manufacturing plant, one minute of downtime costs on average $30,000. If production goes down for a couple of hours, the company loses just over $3.5 million.

The correct answer for whether upgrading is better than like-for-like replacing really varies from job to job and in most cases the two solutions need to be used in parallel. The more planning, surveying, risk analysis done by a company, the easier it is to cope with a problem when it inevitably occurs.

It should be noted there is an extent to both methods. Upgrading every time a more efficient system is identified would mean bankruptcy, based on the innovations in automation at the moment, whereas solely relying on legacy systems risks large failures and prolonged periods of downtime. Ultimately, the end goal is to find a harmony between the two, in order for factories to run like a dream.