Plant & Works Engineering
The great obsolescence debate
Published:  05 April, 2016

Nick Boughton, sales manager at Boulting Technology, discusses best practice for obsolescence management from a systems integrator point of view.

When a part breaks in a car, you only really have two choices: find a like-for-like replacement or buy a new car. Fortunately, in a factory there's freedom to be more creative; it's a systems integrator job to be the artist in the process. The control system in a factory is what a motor is to a car, and when something is amiss, the systems integrator will analyse, design, fit and test, to make sure the system is better than ever and raring to go. However, there's a topic that we're finding crops up time and again – managing obsolescence.

The debate between upgrade vs. repair is by no means a new one, but it has become prevalent as most industries look to squeeze margins. Certain sectors have long had to carefully manage obsolescence due to their delicate nature. For example, pharmaceuticals manufacturing is well known for being heavily regulated and so sourcing spare parts instead of committing to a systems upgrade generally means saving time, money and a whole lot of paperwork.

However, other sectors with critical systems and infrastructure often demand a combination of legacy systems and the latest technologies. Just think of aerospace and defence, for example.

In almost all cases it's a matter of planning and forward thinking, while implementing a healthy mix of upgrade and obsolescence management. The question you really need to be asking yourself is ‘what's the best thing for the system overall?’

Everyone is different

As a systems integrator, we're called in when there needs to be a serious change. We're there to analyse and advise on the options as best we can, but the decision is the customer's alone and there are many factors that come into play when it’s time to commit.

For a start, not everyone has the luxury of being able to afford a complete upgrade. On the flip side of the coin, not everyone has the choice of relying on spares. No matter what the client chooses, the role of a systems integrator is to complete the job to the highest standard using the tools available to us.

Every job is different and usually comes with its own unique challenges that determine whether an upgrade is even possible. For example, Boulting Technology was recently called out to a factory manufacturing glass bottles to update the control system for its production process.

The interesting thing about this job was that in the process, a kiln was automatically fed broken glass every five hours to keep it alive and to keep the production line moving. If the conveyor feeding glass into the kiln stopped and the oven cooled, the kiln would no longer be in a working condition. It was imperative for us to work around the issue.

If we return to the car metaphor, we had to remove the old engine and replace it with a new one, but keep the wheels turning at all times. We achieved this by implementing the new control system in phases and ensuring that a motor was running the conveyor at all times.

In this case a complete upgrade was not plausible due to the nature of continuous production, which just goes to show that sometimes the choice is taken out of the hands of the client altogether.

Analyse, plan and stay one step ahead

Regardless of whether a client is implementing an upgrade or using spare parts to maintain production, organisation and planning are crucial.

Take the water industry for example. A plant that turns river water into drinking water is a critical application. If anything was to go wrong with the process, it could put lives at risk. It's common for computerised maintenance management systems (CMMS) to be used in these types of plants. These systems help companies manage infrastructure. For example, they enable alerts for new software updates, manage records of where spare parts are located or calculate the cost of breakdown repair versus preventive maintenance for each machine.

When relying on spares to keep production up and running, there are several questions that arise from a systems integrator's perspective. First of all, does it contain obsolete components? If so, you have to accept there will only be a finite number of replacements out there, which means sooner or later you're going to have to upgrade.

The big risk when it comes to managing obsolescence is reliability. If a system is brought to a halt because an obsolete component has broken down and needs replacing, how long have you got before the same thing happens again? Maybe there are bigger faults in the systems causing the part to fail? This would make replacing a false economy.

You may think that in most scenarios facilities managers are faced with an easy decision – to replace the entire system. However, it might not be that straight forward. If this is a critical application then yes, an upgrade would be advisable, but if it's not and replacement parts are cheap and plentiful, the company might be happy to carry on as it is.

The analysis that most businesses use is called overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). This is a series of metrics developed to establish how effectively a manufacturing process is operating. Companies use OEE as a benchmark for how well they're doing in terms of efficiency and we're often called in as the result of the metrics pointing to improvements that can be implemented.

What's the risk?

Downtime is the dreaded risk when companies decide either to upgrade or make do and source spares. In an automotive manufacturing plant, one minute of downtime costs on average $30,000. If production goes down for a couple of hours, the company loses just over $3.5 million.

The correct answer for whether upgrading is better than like-for-like replacing really varies from job to job and in most cases the two solutions need to be used in parallel. The more planning, surveying, risk analysis done by a company, the easier it is to cope with a problem when it inevitably occurs.

It should be noted there is an extent to both methods. Upgrading every time a more efficient system is identified would mean bankruptcy, based on the innovations in automation at the moment, whereas solely relying on legacy systems risks large failures and prolonged periods of downtime. Ultimately, the end goal is to find a harmony between the two, in order for factories to run like a dream.

For further information please visit: