A Strategic Approach for Upgrading Process Control Systems, Part 1

Determining when to migrate to a new system and developing a process for the upgrade projects.

By By Larry O’Brien and Dick Hill, ARC Advisory Group

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Upgrading control systems could be the biggest single issue many process and batch automation system end-users face today. ARC Advisory Group estimates that the combined value of the installed base of automation systems now reaching the end of their useful lives is approximately $65 billion. This represents a big opportunity for end-users in the chemical process industries and their automation suppliers alike.

The dynamics of the market for control system migration have changed somewhat since ARC Advisory Group performed its last analysis back in 2010 following the global recession that significantly curbed capital spending. Today, many businesses require an even stronger value proposition and justification for migration projects than in the past. Despite this and other headwinds, some process and batch manufacturers are rapidly approaching the point where replacing old technology will be a matter of business sustainability.

Automation suppliers continue to expand their migration offerings. This is the case both for migrating from competitors’ systems and for migrating from a legacy system to a new system from the same supplier. It has also become apparent that migration is no longer strictly a distributed control systems (DCS) issue, but has grown to encompass other types of systems. These include process safety systems (SISs); burner management systems; and other automation platforms.

Protect your process control systems

Manufacturers in the chemical process industries use a number of different approaches when evaluating potential migration suppliers. For many, automation system migration represents a significant change. One thing end-users should take into account is the potential supplier’s ability to provide a solution that will offer real business value while minimizing downtime and risk. No matter how smooth the implementation may have gone, if you simply end up with a functional replacement, you failed to exploit an excellent opportunity to improve plant and business performance. ARC advocates a rigorous team approach that begins with a well-defined strategy and business goals. Developing and weighting the criteria for the control system will significantly improve the ultimate selection of a migration supplier.

Migration Driving Forces

In ARC’s view, migration means moving from an earlier generation of a system to the current state of the art, which ARC defines as the Collaborative Process Automation System (CPAS). Migration involves upgrading an old system to a current system while:
• Preserving as much intellectual property as possible from the existing system
• Leveraging the full capabilities of the new system to improve business performance
• Minimizing the impact on operations
• Minimizing cost
• Minimizing risk

Aging Installed Base and Process Automation System Lifecycle

DCSs were first introduced in 1975. While the lifecycle of these systems can be quite long, this varies from component to component. DCS hardware components, such as wiring and I/O, can have a lifecycle of 30 years or more. Controllers have a slightly shorter lifecycle, but also tend to last upwards of 20 years or so. The workstation and application layer of the system has a much shorter lifecycle. Most major suppliers announce major version changes of their HMI and operator software every 18 months or so. HMI workstations may not be able to run the latest OS after only a few years and must be regularly replaced.

Due to the different component lifecycles, older installed systems today represent an amalgam of older I/O and wiring infrastructure, combined with not-quite-so-old controllers and newer operator workstations, servers and related software and applications. The closer you get to the I/O and wiring infrastructure, however, the more difficult it is to articulate a business value proposition for control system migration.

The Changing Workforce

The profile of the workforce in the process industries is changing drastically. The overall level of experience of workers decreases as more and more experienced employees retire. Much of the knowledge required to run older plants is vanishing along with it. One owner-operator even had to rehire retired workers because nobody had the knowledge in house to restart a plant after it had been shut down for maintenance.

Similarly, the knowledge required to maintain legacy process automation systems is also walking out the door. At the same time, the level of education of workers in process automation is actually increasing. Many operators at process plants are now engineers. They will demand access to more information from the process automation system to be able to make better decisions. The process automation system will also increasingly capture the knowledge of experienced workers via enabling technologies such as automated procedural management for things like startup, shutdown and grade changes. The older generation of systems cannot support this kind of functionality.

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