Control Systems: Make The Most Of Migration

Oct. 23, 2019
A methodical approach to control system modernization can optimize results

Your goal: maximize the efficiency of your equipment while keeping costs under control. This sometimes translates to a modernization effort that will improve throughput by enabling decreased cycle times not feasible with current equipment.

A modernization project will help you reduce lifecycle costs. Old equipment gets more expensive to maintain over time and, if you upgrade, you’ll decrease downtime by having systems that are easy to maintain and troubleshoot — ultimately improving your quality metrics and cutting scrap rates.

What you certainly don’t want is being forced to launch such a project because of an emergency.

Take the case of one company that was running a legacy system that included three of the nine controller units the vendor ever manufactured. No conversion utilities existed for the units, so every change required manual re-programming. Multiple legacy platforms, uncoordinated alarms that weren’t tied together, poorly maintained documentation and lack of drawings meant the company continually faced the need for extensive engineering.

Suddenly, the equipment broke down and there was going to be a high price to pay to fix it. The company had a short window to perform a shutdown to replace process instrumentation and control elements while minimizing downtime. Moreover, to enhance operator acceptance of the new system, the company wanted to maintain the look and feel of the old one.

The company worked with JMP Solutions to evaluate several platforms and automation vendors. The project scope accounted not only for meeting current demands while maintaining existing screens for operators to minimize disruption but also for future-proofing equipment to ensure the opportunity for ongoing growth.
Coming up with the most-suitable solution required:

• an understanding of the situation and development of a comprehensive plan to eliminate downtime;
• extensive experience with programmable logic controllers (PLCs), drives, human/machine interfaces (HMIs), supervisory control and data acquisition systems, motion controllers and applications that meet the needs of the business such as manufacturing execution systems;
• a proven methodology and approach that is result oriented and provides clear metrics for project completion as well as a timeline;
• change-management guidance that can assist the entire company navigating through a major hardware upgrade with minimal disruption to work processes; and
• documentation and training so everyone on the team feels comfortable with the new systems and can operate them with maximum efficiency.

Make A Plan

Of course, you shouldn’t wait to migrate until an emergency forces your hand. Instead, you should approach modernization in a methodical way. First, you must assess your situation.

The key to successful migration starts with conducting a roadmap assessment where you identify the outcomes you want to achieve for your businesses. Often, this involves gathering operability reports, defining future roadmap goals, performing system and plant inspections, and using other management tools to collect information not only about the equipment but how it’s used.

Throughout the process, you’ll learn about automation options, services and the strategies needed to develop a project that is delivered on-time, on-budget, on-scope and with minimal risk. Initial discovery discussions should point to key performance metrics, clarify next steps and the kinds of solutions to deploy to effect change.

You should be looking for a roadmap to project success. What tools do you need to employ? What is the timeline for project implementation, including when must you plan for downtime and how can you minimize the impact on your business? In addition, the timeline should specify a target date for project completion.

The roadmap assessment also can work through potential operational issues and, in turn, prioritize your business outcomes such as how your project will impact yield improvement, energy management, efficiency tracking, compliance and supply chain coordination. Analysis and prioritization of these desired business outcomes will provide the context that will drive project scope and related equipment.

The roadmap also should contain a project plan — which might include multiple stages that correspond to an engineering specification as well as lifecycle support. This could involve greater manufacturing flexibility through scheduling of multiple products on the same process equipment and simpler regulatory compliance through elimination of a process waste stream.

Take the case of a company that was looking for an integrator to deliver a project and ongoing controls implementation support over a 21-year period, covering new unit installations and upgrades of existing systems as they complete their lifecycle. In addition, the integrator needed to provide consistent support on all levels, including project, expansion and upgrade, and extension of staff.

The plan was to evaluate the existing controls set-up in one facility with the aim of increasing product throughput and quality as well as support of a major system upgrade and conversion to some new applications and ensuring their compatibility with the controls architecture. The operating company decided to use this opportunity to expand the project scope by including a second complete process train that required ongoing system and process additions, upgrading of legacy controls, integration of system batch data with enterprise resource planning software, and support for site migration.

Here, the presence of full-time staff who understood and had specific expertise in the controls architecture of the company eased project implementation.

The results were impressive: increased throughput and yield with the addition of multiple trains and process controls that manage the product batches; greater flexibility through scheduling of multiple products on the same process equipment; simpler regulatory compliance by elimination of a waste stream; and decreased time to value and project risk due to controls being delivered on time and to specification.

A big piece of the upgrade process is to ensure that, if you’re not maintaining a controls expert on staff to continually assess and work through your control system architecture lifecycle, you’re training your team with best practices. This might entail arranging for some ongoing support, even on a sporadic basis, from the integrator involved in the project.

Update Documentation

That training must involve a documentation project. You must upgrade your documentation when you upgrade your systems. One polypropylene producer was looking to find a partner that could provide primary distributed control system (DCS) and PLC support for one of its North American plants. This included updating and enhancing control system documentation to support maintenance and ongoing troubleshooting.

The company needed multiple PLC installations on plant auxiliary systems, replacing relay-based controls with HMI PLCs. In addition, the project had to provide support of the company’s existing system that controls the polymer reactors and extruder, field audit, verification and development of 500+ loop drawings in preparation for a major PLC migration. So, a follow-up project was launched to update all plant process control and logic drawings.

The plan also involved work on migration of an aging compressor control system as part of an initiative to upgrade several legacy PLC-based auxiliary systems. The control system modernization project led to increased throughput through process debottlenecking and upgrades. Moreover, the company realized greater product yield and quality by replacing aging polymerization tracking software. In addition, more-consistent availability of process feedstocks and decreased time to value and lower project risk via efficient project management resulted in better production schedule alignment.

What’s included in a documentation project might seem obvious. However, every step you take in this migration must be written down and photographed or diagramed — whatever “illustration” you think will suffice for a person or team that wasn’t involved in the migration to do it again. Adding a “scribe” to the project team often is a good idea; otherwise, task someone on the team with that activity. No point is too small to document. Again, think about it as if you weren’t involved in the project. Is the documentation adequate to enable you to replicate the work?

Choose a simple way of documenting — via paper or common computer spreadsheet, presentation or collaboration software — whatever your company is most familiar with from a sharing perspective. Also, store every document in an area or system accessible only to those who need it. Online retention is best, especially if a company has multiple locations.

While documentation is important, you also must factor training into your plan and your timeline. You should train your personnel on both the equipment and process that you’re automating, even if you have contracted with an integrator for support.

Often an integrator will possess specialists with expertise in your industry and experience with how automation systems perform in the process. They can add their knowledge of the equipment and play a critical role in partnering with your team, maintaining the system and making changes in it throughout the migration as well as after the project is complete.

Avoid The Potholes

A number of issues might throw your project off track. Here are five key causes of failure during migrations:

1. Lack of sufficient understanding of the migrating equipment, including sub-systems, attached equipment, communications (device and system level), and specialty hardware. Expertise not only in the equipment you are installing but also in the equipment you are replacing is critical. How can you replace a system if you don’t know what it did and how? Ensure you have the technical diagrams/documents on hand as you begin this migration and, if you don’t know exactly how that system worked, find out!

2. Flawed timeline for execution, weeks versus weekends. Detailed planning helps determine the best path forward. Often a project lasts longer than anticipated, so be realistic or ensure your integrator is realistic about what you must do to get this project completed and how long each step will take. Stage-gate analysis is critical in any complex project; performing these analyses at crucial points along the migration timeline ensures the schedule is as realistic as possible. It also imposes a formalized risk identification and mitigation process on the project, allowing application of countermeasures at the earliest and most-cost-effective point.

3. Inadequate maintenance and operator training to support the new system. There’s nothing worse than converting your system just to have it unsupportable with your internal resources.

4. Absence of fallback planning. It’s critical to have a means to undo what you did should an emergency arise — so the plant can continue to operate. As previously discussed, documentation is key. You must document every step of the migration — what you did, how you did it, when you did it, and why you did it. That way, if you have to step it back, you can do so methodically without “breaking” the process.

5. Poor spare parts inventory. Having essential replacements on hand is important to this process as well, especially after the migration, because the new equipment isn’t necessarily stocked internally. A bill-of-materials review always should take place before milestone migration dates are set. This review will reveal which parts might fail first, so that you can cross-reference useful life expectancy with availability and lead time on a per-part basis to develop a preventative-maintenance-driven in-house spare parts strategy.

Where To Turn

Any company looking to embark on an upgrade project should consult with some of the certification associations that can provide information on the backgrounds and experience of integrators you’re considering. In the case of hardware upgrades, the Control System Integration Association,, is a critical resource to help ensure you use an integrator that delivers top-notch results.

In many cases, besides offering expertise on various manufacturers’ systems, an integrator can provide specific chemical industry knowhow related to processes that will help in assessing your situation. By using the firm’s specialists as an extension of your staff, you can take advantage of their knowledge and insights to minimize the learning curve needed for your personnel.

Most importantly, you want to ensure you’re evaluating an integrator on its ability to understand the outcomes you’re trying to achieve for your business. Increasing quality, throughput and safety; decreasing cost and risk; and positively impacting time to market are just a few results that should top your lists. Some integrators offer an onsite roadmap assessment. It’s a good way to get things started.

 DARRYL KING is director of sales, control systems and AGVs for JMP Solutions, Cambridge, Ontario. Email him at [email protected].

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