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Technology Zombies - Four Steps to a Control System Migration Plan

October 31, 2016 / by Joshua Mcguigan

It’s a dark and stormy night. You’re driving through the rain towards your plant with a foreboding text message on your phone. You have a sinking feeling about what awaits you. It has been lurking on your plant floor for decades. It used to be known and loved, but then something happened. The manufacturer obsoleted it, and it turned on you. You arrive to find your technology zombie has clawed out of its stainless-steel grave, halting production and wasting product in the process.

Technology Zombies.jpg
If you’ve been in the controls industry for any length of time then this narrative is probably familiar to you. Technology zombies tend to unearth themselves at the most inopportune times. At Vertech, we don’t want you wading through The Walking Dead to deal with a production problem, so let’s dust the cob webs out of the control panel and discuss control system technology upgrades.

Control System Upgrades

Aging control systems can suffer from lost documentation, lack of support, limited availability of parts, and poor performance. And inevitably, they will descend to the grave and give up the ghost. Before you fall victim to its bite, you need a well thought-out control system upgrade strategy. But upgrades don’t have to be all about righting your wrongs. Control systems technology has come a long way in recent years. The full list of improvements you can expect when modernizing your control system could fill up a volume the size of a Stephen King novel, but here are a few Shining examples:

  • Better Security
  • Easier Troubleshooting
  • Faster Modifications
  • Mobile and Web-based Access
  • IIoT and Big Data Ready

With all of these benefits it seems like control system upgrades should be an easier sell than a neck protector in Sleepy Hollow, but there is typically one major hurdle: downtime. The opportunity for control system downtime in many facilities comes about as often as Friday the 13th, so we are often required to get a little creative when planning for the implementation of control system upgrades. With a little thought, and by following the steps below, it is possible to take care of this downtime Gremlin and reap the benefits of a control system upgrade without ever feeding it after midnight.

Four Steps to a Control System Migration Plan

  1. Review your system and determine which components need to be replaced. Sometimes replacing a PLC without replacing the SCADA system, or vice versa, is sufficient to address the concerns above and bury the technology zombies. Other times, it is best to do a more thorough control system upgrade.
  1. Work to develop a solid understanding of how your system operates from a control systems perspective. Things like which PLC controls which motors, and which objects on SCADA are associated with which PLC are important to know. Your control systems integrator can help with this task, but it is important that you have some personal understanding of this going into the next step.
  1. Take an honest assessment of how much downtime can be tolerated during the upgrade procedure. None is a fair answer for some systems when considered in their entirety, but if the system is broken down into its constituent parts, it’s almost always the case that individual pieces can withstand some down time. This can be because there is some redundancy in the process (for example, three chillers when only two are needed), there is some type of buffer in the system (for example, large water tanks can be used to maintain outgoing water supply to the process even if the incoming water supply is stopped), or for any number of other reasons. Also consider the possibility of running the plant in local control (or hand mode) during the control system upgrade. Running the whole plant manually for the duration of a complete control system startup is rarely an option, but running a small sub-system within the plant manually for just long enough modify that sub-system is typically feasible.
  1. Outline a complete plan for the control system conversion. In most cases this means creating phases which each focus on the upgrade of a specific portion of your control system. Phases can be in the form of replacing one PLC of many in your facility, moving one small sub-system (control of a small portion of your plant) from an aging PLC to a new PLC, or converting just a few graphic screens. Again, getting your control systems integrator involved during this step is a great idea, as they can review your system and help you to determine which pieces of functionality would best be grouped together as a phase in your overall conversion plan.

Flip the Script

While it is unlikely that Michael Myers is going to spring out from behind any control cabinet doors this Halloween, technology zombies are plotting their own Night of the Living Dead in SCADA systems around the world. Many consider a control system upgrade to be a Resident Evil, but it’s time to flip the script and consider the benefits of an upgrade. In a world full of trade-offs, a technology upgrade is a win-win. When you resurrect your zombie control systems with a new body, not only do you avoid the trick, you also get a bucket full of treats. Take some time to consider what technology zombies you may have, and how productive you could be with a SCADA system which was a more robust, more feature-filled, and better documented version of its current self. Trick or treat!

Take Action

At Vertech, we chew through control system ghouls like the Ghostbusters playing Pac Man. And we can write jokes almost as well as we can write code (that’s really well, if you haven’t been following along). Connect with us below if you’d like to learn more about how we can help you keep the technology zombies at bay.

Is your control system obsolete? Download our latest white paper, "5 Risk Mitigation Techniques for Control System Upgrades", to learn how to take a manageable approach to a control system upgrade as well as five strategies to use to mitigate risk during your upgrade.

Download the White Paper

Topics: Control Systems

Joshua Mcguigan

Written by Joshua Mcguigan


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