This post was authored by Matt Sigmon of MAVERICK Technologies, a Rockwell Automation company.

Recently I watched the movie Apollo 13 again, this time including my four children who had never seen the cinematic classic. I’ve personally seen it too many times to count; it’s one of my favorites—partly because it’s based on a true story that I never tire of reflecting on and remembering. Perhaps my favorite scene in the movie is the one where Gene Kranz (played by the venerable Ed Harris), NASA Flight Director of the Apollo missions is confronted with the harsh reality that three American astronauts were trapped inside the crippled Command and Lunar Modules, unlikely to reach their destination and facing a present danger that would cause most of us to panic. As the movie depicts, it was in this moment and faced with a mountain of pressure that Kranz uttered the words, “Failure is not an option.”

Admittedly, most controls engineers and automation specialists will never be confronted with such a life and death dilemma, yet we do face challenges and problems that demand the same determined ethic. Perhaps the most critical challenge facing the automation industry is that of aging control systems at or near the end of their product lifecycles. This is particularly the case with older DCS systems, though there are certainly a multitude of mature PLC, SCADA and DDC systems likewise nearing the end of their life spans. According to one recent ARC Advisory Group report, there are $65 Billion worth of obsolete control systems installed worldwide. Assuming that a third of those (approximately $20B dollars) are DCS systems, the result is that over ten million DCS I/O will need to be migrated over the next 10-20 years. Multiple platforms are no longer approaching the end of their lifecycles, they are already there; and beginning in 2013 many will no longer be supported by the OEM with parts and/or services. For some systems, the can simply cannot be kicked further down the road.

For industrial manufacturers with a significant DCS installed base, the problem is daunting and they face the real challenge of limited resources, planning and capital. Our work with these same manufacturers over the last several years has identified three different categories of approach to this problem.

This first approach is proactive address of DCS migration issues. These manufacturers have demonstrated initiative in facing these problems and challenges, having already developed and begun implementing migration strategies and plans. This includes FEL (Front End Loading) studies, capital planning, and actual execution of migration projects.

The second approach is a delayed address of DCS migration issues. Manufacturers in this category haven’t been so proactive, yet are now beginning to embark on similar endeavors. They are starting and completing evaluations, developing preliminary estimates and schedules, and laying out roadmaps for their migrations.  Some in this second category are further along than others, but all face similar challenges, including vendor selection, funding approval, and figuring out how to migrate thousands of I/O and application programs to a new system with little or no downtime.

Finally, there are a number of manufacturers that are in reactive mode and have done little or nothing to plan for or begun migrating their obsolete systems. In a recent discussion, one controls engineer told me at their management’s discretion, they will not begin replacing their old DCS until equipment failures (that cannot be remedied with parts refurbished onsite) cause process downtime. Simply put, they will replace it when it breaks and can’t be fixed.

Failure should not be an option, yet to varying degrees for some industrial manufacturers it’s very real possibility, particularly those in the third category.  With no plan, no funding approved and no migration work completed, they potentially face production downtime, loss of efficiency and diminished market presence.  And without an effective, proactive plan they will likely struggle to secure funding, fail to thoroughly evaluate their options and spend too much when they finally begin the process of migration.

Even so there is time and opportunity to plan for success, implement the right solution and move your organization forward. How? Much could be written to answer that question but briefly below are three key steps that should be put into practice post-haste.

  1. Start planning – NOW. Don’t delay any longer. In 1961, President Kennedy issued a great challenge to the American people and to a specific team of current and future engineers, scientists, pilots, etc. But it took more than a challenge for the goal to be achieved. It took years of planning, research, effort, and continued refining of the solutions and designs. The team did not quit after the Apollo 1 tragedy, and neither did it quit when faced the impending disaster of Apollo 13. Failure was not an option. Plan the work and work the plan, and start planning now. The sooner you take the first couple steps the sooner you can get funding approved and begin implementing a holistic plan that addresses not only the obsolescence of your existing systems but also helps you drive process improvement.
  2. Get the right people on your team and challenge them to deliver. Remind them failure is not an option and success is achievable. You likely can’t go this alone and you’ll need a team of individuals that possess the right aptitude and attitude for success. Look for partners and team members that understand your needs and goals and will be mutually committed to your mission’s success. Be careful of biases and excuses – they’ll lead you down the wrong road or hold you back. Seek out those who are objective and experienced.
  3. As you face challenges, setbacks and delays, go back to your plan, revise your solutions and keep moving forward. Stagnation and apathy will result in missed opportunities and possibly failure. As the Apollo 13 mission taught us, never panic and never give up on finding the right solution. Lay out the options, consider them objectively, and develop a migration and funding plan that meets your objectives and results in success.

About the Author
Matt Sigmon is director of DCS Next at MAVERICK Technologies. Matt joined the firm in 2005 when the company acquired General Electric Automation Services, where he had worked since 1997. He has served as director of sales operations, regional manager, engineering manager, project manager, and engineer. Sigmon now directs the company’s DCS Next initiative. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Clemson University.

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