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On one hand, it would be great to have brand new manufacturing equipment. On the other, brand new equipment costs money. You need to justify the expense based on factors relating to both obsolescence and business goals. Of the two, business goals have a greater weight, as you shall see.

First, a word about the obstacles to upgrading. Besides the expense, meaning you or your management are unwilling to make an upfront investment when the manufacturing equipment has not failed entirely, there are other roadblocks thrown up against upgrading:

  • The fear of change
  • The fear of risk, either of a poor implementation or a high learning curve
  • The need to balance against losses from inefficiency and downtime

The first two obstacles will likely be the hardest to fight against, but the third will provide some ammunition if you put it together with the need to reach business goals more efficiently and effectively.

Don’t forget to consider the impact to your secondary systems such as network infrastructure or field equipment.

Why Upgrade Your Manufacturing Equipment? The Big Picture

There are four big picture reasons to upgrade your manufacturing equipment.

  • Support and cost
  • Performance
  • Reliability
  • Need for change

Two levels of support are required for any system. The operator or local service provider provide the first level. The first level includes making programming changes, providing routine maintenance, and controller repair/replacement.

The second is from the manufacturer or vendor of your replacement parts and software updates.

When support wanes, due to obsolescence and lack of spare parts, or if the vendor withdraws active support for your system, the cost of your business increases.

Performance is a handy metric to measure. You will see that the system still operates but more slowly than it used to, or not as fast as the newer systems. The user interface may be old and more difficult to use than a newer one. Perhaps the system is not as easy to understand and operate as it might be.

Ideally, a system does not suffer unplanned downtime. High reliability requires a little regular service and calibration. When reliability starts to depend on a lot of services, it may be time for an upgrade.

If your business is growing or the industry is changing, you may have a need for change. Your system needs to expand its capabilities or be upgraded with new features to maintain your business goals.

Perform a Front End Loading (FEL) evaluation to decrease the risk of missing important issues or opportunities to make other improvements.

Potential Reasons to Upgrade

Taking the question of whether to upgrade a little more specifically, here is a list of tangible reasons to upgrade a system:

  • Existing equipment is obsolete, difficult to maintain, or hard to get parts for
  • Existing equipment no longer meets your functional or technical requirements for operation
  • Improved energy or operator efficiency through utility savings and simplified operation and problem recognition
  • Higher accuracy and less waste
  • Reduced labor costs from automating more of the process
  • Enhanced data acquisition and visualization remotely and in real time
  • Higher safety standards

As with any technology, improvements continue to be made in existing product lines, and new capabilities may have been introduced since your manufacturing equipment was first installed. Plus, the obsolescence rate for integrated circuits is less than five years, something to keep in mind for future planning.

Speaking of Planning, Plan Ahead for Your Upgrades

You have some decisions to make about the upgrade process before you schedule service. You want to keep the upgrade cost effective while achieving your business goals and reducing risk.

You need to lock these decisions down before you go shopping.

Decision #1: Develop clear evaluation and purchasing criteria. Define your requirements and how you intend to procure your upgrade. How will you select and evaluate bids and vendors? What configuration will your operations require in the future?

Decision #2: Determine who will be involved in the decision. Your field and operations team know what happens on the floor. Management knows what happens to the budget. You need to hear from everyone.

Decision #3: Justify your decision to upgrade. Your best justification is to achieve one or more of your business goals. You will get more immediate buy-in than with a statement about potential manufacturing equipment failure.

Decision #4: Decide if you need a full upgrade or only a partial upgrade. Also, do you need or want to do a complete upgrade or phase it in over time?

Decision #5: Lock down what you expect from your vendor and system including your budget, implementation methodology, required support, and customer references.

Write your decisions down and create a checklist to use as the basis for an RFP and scoring bids and vendors.

The only constant, “they” say, is change. But “they” also say you should not embrace change for the sake of change.

Controllers and equipment continue to improve in efficiency and performance. If you have not evaluated your operations recently, you should look at your current capabilities and your future business goals.

If you do not have the capabilities to meet those goals, it is time for an upgrade.

About the Author:

With over 25 years of experience in the industrial automation repair industry, Jeff Conner is the Dallas Service Manager for Control Concepts and serves on the Advisory Committee for the Electronics Technologies Department at Texas State Technical College. Control Concepts offers around the clock service and support anywhere you need it. To learn more, visit