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When smart meets legacy


One of the challenges that manufacturers face when starting their digitisation journey is how to deal with legacy machines. Much of this equipment predates the digital evolution and lack the sensors and network capability required to integrate into a smart factory. But a tactic of rip and replace is not the only option, as Connected Technology Solutions discovers.

It is undeniably true that the manufacturing sector is going through a significant transition. The last several decades have focused firmly on automation which has propelled manufacturing to whole new levels. Vastly increased efficiency and productivity led to significantly reduced manufacturing costs, fuelling intense competition and, of course, profits, mostly through labour displacement and exponential increases in output volumes.

“As automation has now become ubiquitous in almost every manufacturing environment, the curve of increased returns from those investments is starting to flatten,” Jason Chester, director of global channel programs, InfinityQS, says. “As we have already harvested the low hanging fruit – and much of the high-up-hard-to-get-fruit – we have reached a plateau in performance. When everyone else is doing the same, we gain a less competitive edge through automation alone and are merely keeping up with the new bar set across the manufacturing sector.

“Yet the consumers of manufactured goods continue to drive a hard bargain. They strive for better, faster, cheaper products. They have instant access to price comparisons, reviews, and influencers. Advances in global supply chain logistics and online commerce gives them the ability to purchase goods from almost anywhere at any time. To add insult to injury, they also demand greater ethics from manufacturers – they disdain waste, recycle, upcycle, demand sustainability, care about climate change and despise corporate greed.”

It is this dichotomy that is pushing manufacturing through this next major transition – that of digital transformation. But what exactly is digital transformation? If we reframe it from a technology biased term to a business-oriented one, then the answer is simple – it is the enabler behind manufacturing optimisation.

“An automated manufacturing process is not an optimised one,” Chester explains. “Even in highly automated manufacturing environments, we still experience high levels of waste, downtime, quality issues, for example, and all manner of other unpredictable events. To optimise a manufacturing environment, we need to capture – in real time – information from across the manufacturing environment and use that data intelligently to optimise the manufacturing process. We also need to use that intelligence to predict when and where suboptimal performance may occur in the future and what action can be taken to mitigate it.

“The need for manufacturing optimisation is undisputable. The ability for digital transformation to be the enabler of manufacturing optimisation is undisputable. The question is this, will the legacy control and automation infrastructures prevalent across manufacturing support digital transformation, hinder it or completely derail it? If they cannot support it, then this needs to be a significant focus area for manufacturers. These environments must be digitally enabled to capture the rich source of data that they have the potential of capturing and leveraging.

“But that does not, and should not mean, the only option is rip-and-replace. There are many advances in sensor, telemetry, and edge computing technologies specifically designed to retrofit those legacy environments and enable them digitally. Therefore, legacy control and automation environments must not be a barrier to digital transformation, but rather, a challenge that needs to be worked around.”

The intergenerational smart factory

Germany is the European leader in automation and robotics. Yet, according to a 2018 study of the Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWI), only 28 per cent of German manufacturers have a strategic plan to digitalise their factories. Though digitalisation benefits are enormous, many plant managers still feel that a smart factory is out of their reach.

“New technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality and 3D printing are impacting manufacturing at unprecedented speed,” Jonathan Wilkins, director of EU Automation, says. “In this scenario, manufacturers are faced with more options than ever to transform their factories into smart, Industry 4.0 equipped facilities.”

Technological giants such as Bosch and Siemens are leading the way in this sense. Even companies, such as Japanese robotics specialist Fanuc have switched to a fully automated production system where robots run the factory in complete autonomy. However, closing the gap between emerging technology and their existing, often decades-old equipment is a big challenge for smaller businesses. “Many manufacturers lack both the technical skills and the financial resources to digitalise their production fully and might perceive digitalisation as something that only pertains to big corporations,” Wilkins adds. “However, the pathway to a smart factory doesn’t necessarily involve a complete and expensive overhaul.

“Sometimes, manufacturers can easily and cost-effectively upgrade their existing legacy equipment, for example, by adding a variety of sensors for IoT connectivity. This represents a quick and inexpensive way to enjoy the benefits of Industry 4.0 without facing huge investments, months of downtime, and the necessity to retrain their workforce.”

Industrial machinery has a long lifespan. This means that in many cases, manufacturers run critical operations in their plants with machines that are 20 to 30 years old. This equipment often forms the backbone of the factory and is vital to the business’s performance. However, machines built 20 or more years ago lack the capacities for connectivity that are essential to achieve a truly smart factory. For example, the equipment may communicate via proprietary protocols that use RS-232/422/485 serial cables, which are not suited to remote monitoring across a TCP/IP network.

“Machine to machine (M2M) communication is one of the main ways that manufacturers can realise Industry 4.0,” Wilkins continues. “Generally, newer machines will come equipped with means to communicate with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), but because the backbone of the factory does not, manufacturers need to create an intergenerational ecosystem where new technology and legacy machines can work in tandem.

“Commissioning an entirely new production system, the so-called rip and replace approach, has obvious benefits in terms of interoperability, high efficiency and synchronisation with emerging technologies. However, manufacturers who cannot afford a full overhaul can opt for a different approach known as wrap and extend or retrofit. This involves incorporating IIoT connectivity devices, such as OPC servers, IoT platforms and IoT Gateways to add connectivity capabilities to existing machinery and ensure communication between legacy and current protocols.

“Retrofitting can also mean adding sensors for data acquisition or investing in accelerometers and thermocouples to measure vibration, temperature, current and power consumption. These parameters indicate how equipment is performing and can communicate that information via the IoT. The data can then be used for various purposes, such as optimising energy consumption or predictive maintenance. The overall cost of these upgrades is vastly inferior to that of a full overhaul, but their impact on increased productivity can be huge.”

Circular economy 4.0

Retrofitting provides a possible starting point for businesses of all sizes to automate their processes. Consequently, this approach is enjoying more and more popularity. The Technology Group at IHS Markit estimates that the number of connected IoT devices worldwide will increase from nearly 27 billion in 2017 to 125 billion in 2030. Many of them will be legacy devices. Businesses have been quick to tap into this trend with organisations like Bosch, SKF and Festo all offering retrofitted solutions to increase legacy equipment connectivity.

“The retrofitting approach is advisable not only when manufacturers want to implement connectivity in their factories, but also when an obsolete component breaks or is on the verge of breaking,” Wilkins explains. “In this case, sourcing an obsolete component is an easy and cheap solution to get your plant up and running fast, without compromising on safety or the quality of your end-product.

“Traditional manufacturing privileges the make-use-dispose principles of a linear economy. On the contrary, retrofitting legacy equipment or using reconditioned components when the original ones break tap into the far more environmentally friendly principles of the circular economy based on reuse-remake-recover concepts.

“In a society characterised by the quick obsolescence of technology, this approach is not only greener but also financially wiser and offers manufacturers a realistic chance to realise an intergenerational smart factory, where the advantages of emerging technologies meet the reliability of trusted legacy equipment.”

The silence of the alarms

When flames took hold at the Kader toy factory in Thailand in 1993, it heralded the start of the world’s worst industrial fire, killing 188 workers and seriously injuring 500 more. The investigation into the tragedy found the failure of the fire alarm as the principal cause. Despite disasters like this, an alarming number of obsolete systems remain in situ — putting industrial sites and employees at risk.

Gary Bradshaw, director of Omniflex, warns plant managers against delaying the replacement of redundant alarm systems and playing with fire. “Every industrial or manufacturing plant should have an up-to-date alarm monitoring system because even the slightest changes in temperature, flow or environment can damage the production process and lead to costly downtime,” he says. “Chemical processing, for example, requires critically controlled temperature and humidity levels, so the slightest variation can result in defective products or outputs, damage to equipment and can crucially halt production altogether. Having a fully functional, operational alarm monitoring system is therefore essential, no matter the industry.”

Despite the importance of fire prevention, between 80 and 90 per cent of alarm systems fitted in industrial facilities in the UK today are obsolete — a worrying statistic given that malfunction can cost millions. With the stakes so high, it is hard to comprehend why plant owners take the risk and continue production with alarm systems that are not fit for purpose.

The late 1960s and 70s saw a massive increase in installing the hard-wired, panel-based, annunciator systems. The panels featured a series of colour-coded warning lights showing the system’s overall status and monitoring specific conditions from different points across a site. Any condition changes were relayed back to the central control panel, triggering a warning light to alert the plant operator of any issues requiring immediate action.

At the end of the 80s and early 90s, industrial plant managers began moving away from hard-wired alarms favouring PC-based SCADA systems. In contrast to traditional annunciators considered old fashioned that took up too much room, computer-based systems offered a contemporary, compact alternative. Manufacturers could now connect multiple communication points without installing miles of cabling, and it essentially did not require huge capital investment. During this time, many alarm manufacturers, including Babcock, Century and Highland Electronics, either went out of business or were taken over.

“Digitisation undoubtedly improved the efficiency of alarm systems to monitor, analyse and report across a wider range of communication points,” Bradshaw adds. “However, the increase in capabilities led many operators to overload the systems. Sites increasingly became reliant on control systems with complex displays, making it difficult for operators to distinguish critical alarms. This approach was widely publicised as the reason for several high-profile incidents, including the fire at the Buncefield oil storage depot in Milford Haven and the Texaco oil refinery plant explosion in Pembroke.”

Despite incidents like these, thousands of industrial plants remain at risk across the UK. There is often a reluctance to prioritise alarm replacement, with operators ignoring the warning signs. “Convincing senior level plant management that investment in a replacement system is worthwhile can be difficult, especially because the financial return is not immediately apparent,” Bradshaw explains. “Ironically, the return is generally only realised once the system has helped a company to avoid a production loss by alerting operators about an issue.

“Yet, replacing an alarm system does not have to be a timely, costly or disruptive exercise and can safeguard facilities when a system fails with minimum disruption. Alarm failure has cost industrial plants millions of pounds, and in the case of the Kader toy factory, over 150 lives. With such a lot to lose, it is incredible that so many take the risk, especially when retrofitting a replacement to an existing system doesn’t cost the earth.”

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CTS The industrialisation of IT
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