Process manufacturing is going through a monumental transformation. Evolving technology and capabilities combined with outside forces like a competitive talent market are converging to elevate the latest capabilities in automation from a “nice-to-have” to a “need-to-have” priority. Digital transformation is here to stay, upgrading has become a competitive imperative.
Many of the process manufacturing customers we work with are operating on control systems that are 15 to 25 years old. On one hand, these manufacturers don’t want to pay to upgrade their control system until they absolutely have to. On the other, not making an upgrade is preventing them from taking advantage of the Industry 4.0 technology and data-heavy capabilities that exist, as well as the innovations on the horizon.
In this article, we’ll work to demystify the modernization process, and help you take the first steps toward a roadmap for a budget-friendly approach to becoming a process manufacturing powerhouse taking advantage of today’s most modern and impactful technology.
What Are Your Trying to Solve For?
The first step to modernizing your control system is identifying the goals you have for modernization. There are a lot of variables at play, but most of the customers we serve are aiming to solve for some combination of the following problems:
- You have unidentified waste in your production process resulting in lower output and higher cost than expected.
- Your facility is wasting energy, leading to higher costs and environmental impact.
- Your maintenance team is spending untold hours every week fixing valves or other components in your process.
- You’ve spent money on expensive workarounds and patches that keep your process moving, but still don’t achieve the outcome you’re aiming for.
- You don’t have a clear picture of the health and performance of devices on your network until something fails.
- You have no visibility into critical status and diagnostic data.
Does any of that sound familiar? If one or more of those resonate with you, your process automation operation is likely ripe for taking advantage of modernization.
It All Starts with the Network
When we think of modernizing our process automation capabilities, our first thoughts probably turn to a team of robots and computers working in concert to put valuable data at our fingertips when we need it. That’s certainly a result you can achieve, but the ability of your control system to deliver on that promise depends heavily on the health and architecture of your network. The network is the highway all of your data travels upon. The connection between your plant floor (where work gets done) and office (where decisions get made) requires a robust network to facilitate the transfer of operational data to a lab, control room, the plant manager’s office, and anywhere else it needs to travel.
The modernization of your control system requires a network that is robust enough to handle traffic from field devices connected over ethernet. These devices transmit huge volumes of info. If the network isn’t set up to handle it, there will be limits on bandwidth and increased latency. The effects of insufficient bandwidth could range from annoying, when a link doesn’t open as fast as expected, to catastrophic, when slowed production leads to equipment failure, or worse.
Another reason network upgrades should be prioritized is security. Hackers often target the control system network by first gaining access to the business network. You need to ensure that while your networks work together, there’s an appropriate level of firewalls and security to prevent unwanted access.
Modernization in Phases Reduces Complexity and Sticker Shock
While most process manufacturers recognize the need for and value of investing in modernization, there are some common reasons shared among the manufacturers who are still hesitant. One reason is the indirect cost of downtime. Upgrading the network and all the devices on it at the same time feels like a major commitment of time, and time is money in process manufacturing. But perhaps the biggest roadblock to modernization is cost. Manufacturers realize that there are advantages and efficiencies to be gained with state-of-the-art technology, but they also know a complete overhaul comes with a serious upfront investment and that’s a difficult pill to swallow, even if they know it will more than pay for itself in the future.
However, modernization is not something that needs to be done in a single step to realize its benefits. We often recommend customers start by replacing the controller. Agilix Solutions is an authorized distributor for Rockwell Automation, a forward-thinking industry leader that makes backwards-compatible products. That means your new controller can still use I/O modules from your existing system without changing wiring or anything except the controller.
From there, we are able to take a systematic approach to modernizing your control system in whatever timeline works for you. Depending upon your pain points and existing setup, we prioritize the systems most critical to your needs and operations. Addressing the issue progressively and replacing one piece at a time results in a much smaller and more predictable capital hit, reduced stress for the systems integrator, and minimized downtime.
If the idea of a complete and total digital transformation has you hesitant to upgrade, don’t be intimidated by the massive scope. Work with our experts to prioritize the upgrades that will give you the most bang for your buck, while building the infrastructure over time for your next iterative upgrade.
Field Device Upgrades Accomplish a Lot for a Little
Another consideration is the wide breadth of Rockwell-compatible field devices out there from manufacturers like Burkert and Endress+Hauser. These valves and other field instrumentation devices are also using modern technology and increased bandwidth to provide deeper and more valuable info, data, and insights. As these devices become increasingly intelligent, they can often provide a lower cost path to modernization with a more palatable financial commitment.
Process Manufacturing Modernization Starts with Agilix Solutions
Modernization of your process manufacturing operations might feel like an insurmountable task. But the only thing worse than taking the wrong action is taking no action at all. The team at Agilix Solutions is here to serve as your trusted guide through the process. From network upgrades to the equipment you need to fully realize the benefits of a modern industrial control system, we can work with you to develop a roadmap that aligns with your needs, timeline, and budget. Reach out to your account manager or your local Agilix Solutions branch today to begin the conversation.