1663606643151 Heroevaluate

What’s really going on in your digitalization journey? The value of installed-base evaluations

July 15, 2022
Replacing aging tech can do more than reduce obsolescence, it can make your operations more competitive.

By Nick Creath, global product manager, field labor, Rockwell Automation

Each new technology that you deploy as part of a modernization project can propel your plants further in your smart manufacturing journey. But for this to happen, projects must be carried out with intent to address specific needs.

A thorough assessment can give you an understanding of the current state of your operations. Using this baseline, you can then decide where to take your operations with modernization projects.

At a minimum, you should assess your installed base to identify what technologies you have in place. You may have a general awareness of what technologies in a plant are “older.” But few if any manufacturers know the lifecycle status of every piece of technology in their plants. 

An installed-base evaluation service can help compile this information, especially if your resources are limited. This service first reviews and identifies your complete electrical and mechanical installed base. Then, it delivers an analysis of not only what technologies are deployed in your plants and where they are in their lifecycles, but also their criticality in the context of each plant. These insights can help you plan and prioritize your modernization projects.

Ideally, you’ll also assess the other aspects of your operations affected by your modernization projects—things like plant-network capabilities, data needs, staff skillsets and cybersecurity posture. This can help further guide your modernization projects by identifying issues to be addressed; think  skills gaps, reporting processes that can be automated and cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

Plan with a purpose

With an understanding of where your operations are today, you can plan your modernization projects. This involves first identifying the specific problems you want to solve or performance improvements you want to realize in your operations, whether that’s throughput, security or something else. Then, you can set the scope, budget and timelines to achieve those goals.  

It’s also here that you need to decide if you have the resources to complete your projects on your own or if you’ll need outside support. Some manufacturers have a preferred system-integrator they work with, and others opt to work directly with the technology vendors. 

If you’re using outside support, try to simplify things where possible. Working with multiple vendors complicates projects; look for vendors that offer comprehensive support to reduce the number of vendors required or that can coordinate multiple vendors on your behalf. Also, make sure your vendor can not only deliver the modern solutions you need but also tailor them to your specific applications and implement them in your preferred approach.

Your modernization plan may require that you put certain legacy machines or lines into a maintenance phase until funding is available or other critical needs are addressed. Specialized services like parts-management agreements for at-risk parts, repair or remanufacturing services, and remote or in-person technical support can keep assets running until they can be modernized.

Execute for results

In recent years, modernization projects have helped manufacturers keep production systems up to date and realize significantly better business outcomes.

In one case, a canned-goods producer needed to replace an aging control system that couldn’t keep up with higher demand. One pain point of the control system was that it didn’t provide real-time information, and the producer suspected they were wasting considerable resources in production. 

Upgrading the control and information architecture helped the producer meet increased demand. It also helped reduce natural-gas consumption by 38%, CO2 production by 3,000 metric tons and water use by more than 100 million gallons per year.

In another case, an agricultural-product producer decided to upgrade its legacy distributed-control system (DCS) as part of a product line expansion at one of its plants. The legacy HMI system gave plant staff limited visibility into key production data. HMI screens were also overly complex and colorful, which made it difficult for staff to quickly interpret and respond to abnormal conditions. And more than 4,000 alarms programmed into the system made it almost impossible for staff to quickly recognize and respond to legitimate issues that needed to be fixed.

The modern DCS implemented in the facility gave operators clear-cut benchmarks for desirable data ranges, so they could quickly identify if equipment and processes were abnormal. A simplified presentation and more strategic use of colors also helped important data stand out. And better alarm design halved the facility’s alarms, helping operators see legitimate threats without the distraction of nuisance alerts.

Evolving with the times

The same technologies that are helping manufacturers digitally transform their operations are also helping transform modernization projects.

During the pandemic, some manufacturers used remote-access and augmented-reality (AR) technology to support projects when travel and in-person meetings were restricted. This helped companies keep projects moving. And it has the potential to make modernization projects more efficient and less costly by reducing travel requirements and simplifying logistics.

Regardless of how modernization projects evolve, one principle will remain true: those focused on innovation have the most to gain.