In today's no-spend environment, it may be very tempting to continue repairing your aging or outmoded process controls, rather than to upgrade to today's powerful microprocessor-based systems. Budget constraints and maintenance contracts may preempt any discussion about upgrading your controls until you reach the point where you simply can't fix them anymore.
In reality, if you are trying to save money by prolonging the life of an outdated process control system, you're not only investing in false economies, but you are missing out on technology advancements that can provide a sizable return on investment (ROI) in several forms. That ROI could be derived from savings on downtime, improved system efficiencies, remote system capabilities, energy savings, increased safety, or a combination of those benefits.
In fact, the potential ROI and system capabilities of state-of-the-art controls with microprocessor technology will likely overcome any illusions you may have about getting more mileage out of your aging equipment.
A Whole New Ballgame
Using the latest in microprocessor-based control hardware, customized software, and versatile communications devices, today's digital control systems give users unprecedented abilities to monitor, regulate, protect, and improve processes, in virtually any industry.
This is especially true for those who are upgrading from electromechanical and older electronic systems. The communications capabilities and improved abilities to monitor, analyze and more tightly control processes make upgrading to state-of-the-art digital control systems a powerful tool. It not only provides a big payback, but will very likely help keep many companies highly competitive.
While process system reliability is probably the most likely improvement that many customers seek, they should also look at the overall business improvements and ROI that control system upgrades can provide, such as improved process output.
This kind of system is a whole new ballgame. The ROI benefits transcend those that industries are used to gaining when they retrofit or upgrade equipment.
Improved System Reliability
One of the primary benefits of upgrading process controls is system reliability. That translates into other key benefits, such as product quality, uptime, and production capacity. Reliability includes both system uptime and robustness, both of which have a direct impact not only on ROI but also the bottom line.
In some senses, improved system reliability is like an iceberg, with uptime and resulting productivity improvements representing the more visible, and to many companies, the most important cost benefits. The productivity improvements resulting from an upgraded control system would most likely include production line output but upgrading the control system might influence improvements on ancillary systems or equipment as well. For instance, retrofitting high-efficiency, variable-frequency drives or motors might be part of a control system upgrade or retrofit. In that case, productivity improvements are a result of increased energy savings.
Savings on system maintenance and repair can be tied to appropriate upgrading of automation control programs due to the ability to get system-wide feedback.
Being able to pull down the data from a specific period of time enables trending. When these trends require action, you can schedule the appropriate type of maintenance accordingly. You can also compare how differently that product affects the same production equipment, and quantify how some products cause more wear and tear than others. By knowing these trends, you can more accurately schedule maintenance and thereby improve system reliability and uptime.
Some of the feedback that empowers maintenance savings and uptime comes from advanced network communications, including SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems. As well, higher system integration is becoming more attainable through Internet-based automation and control systems that use the existing Ethernet communication network already installed in most facilities. For managers and senior officers it is very useful to have real-time connectedness to the equipment so they can see, control and react to what is going on in real time.
Today's HMI (human-machine interface) terminals add to the SCADA and Internet-based communications power. The continuous retrieval of information keeps the interface updated on automation and other device activities so when any equipment malfunctions or is exposed to a potential problem, an alarm can be communicated in the form of a text message, email, voice mail, or an appropriate combination of alarms.
The automated delivery of reliable information via advanced interfaces also enables more accurate and appropriate system support. "Intelligent" equipment, such as today's process controls, will be able to tell you very accurately what the problem is—and very possibly the sequence of events that led up to the problem. It will also streamline the ability to integrate, troubleshoot, identify, and evaluate process efficiencies and opportunities.
The outcome of those types of process control improvements will help to ensure an appealing ROI on future equipment as well.