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5 Steps to Modernize Your Process Operations

Sept. 1, 2021
Best practices for modernizing your process operations begins with your distributed control system.

Chris King, PlantPAx Migration Business Development Manager, Rockwell Automation

If you think your process automation system has run its course, you’re not alone. It was recently forecast that $65 billion worth of process automation systems are nearing the end of their useful life. And many of these systems are more than 25 years old and in dire need of updating.

Multiple factors can lead plant owners to replace their system, such as an increased failure rate, higher incidence of off-spec product, accelerating maintenance costs, lack of legacy system expertise, capacity limitations or an inability to interface with contemporary systems. But the simple truth is many legacy systems are still in operation, albeit not running as well as they could. Oftentimes, organizations would rather live with the significant pain an obsolete system inflicts than be subjected to the perceived risks of migrating to a modern system.

Automation projects can be difficult to manage – and difficult to justify financially. Still, every day companies successfully make the case for modernization based on existing system shortcomings. And many companies also come to recognize that updating their automation system provides a rare opportunity for significant process improvements – and innovation.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to modernizing a process operation. But in many instances, one impactful area to focus attention on is the distributed control system (DCS). Modern DCS platforms have kept pace with the latest technological developments. And more DCS users are now considering updating their systems for optimal performance. To help mitigate risk – and spread costs over time – many companies choose a phased approach to migration. On the other hand, a “rip and replace” conversion strategy is appropriate for others.

Simply put, each modernization project is unique. And the most successful modernization projects require proper planning. Based on experiences working with hundreds of companies, there are five best practices to implement as part of a modernization strategy.

1. Early Planning. A successful modernization begins – long before any detailed engineering – with an upfront, comprehensive evaluation of the legacy system. Initial objectives at the front end include aligning automation outcomes with business goals, determining the preferred options, obtaining capital funding, and finalizing the scope, cost and schedule.

Through these activities, you establish justification for the project, define it – and align all stakeholders. Keep in mind, the most cost-effective time to define the scope is at the beginning. Costs escalate considerably if basic decisions such as which areas of the plant to include or what interface to apply are revisited later.

2. Engage Experts. Chances are, you already know who to call when faced with a perplexing application challenge. It could be a system integrator or automation supplier. This same network of support can also provide critical assistance throughout your conversion process. In the end, calling on experts when needed saves both time and money.

Finding the right partner can also provide a depth of expertise to understand how to maximize plant systems throughout their lifecycle. These solutions can help drive both performance and productivity in your operation.

3. Establish Standards. Establishing and following standards is as critical as early planning. If appropriate company standards don’t exist, they will need to be developed using internal expertise – or by calling on a system integrator or automation supplier for help.

The more thoroughly you specify and document network protocol, security requirements, I/O and HMI criteria, interface requirements, and controller configuration, the easier it will be to maintain and improve your system.

4. Execution Discipline. Like any update to your legacy system, a DCS conversion can be complex. And as with any extensive undertaking, it requires sound project management. Without execution discipline, any large project runs the risk of spiraling out of control.

To keep your conversion on time and on budget, be sure to follow a consistent execution strategy based on accepted industry best practices. If you do not have resources on staff, consider engaging a certified project management professional (PMP) to help guide your project.

5. Expect Innovation. Do not be content with merely duplicating the content in your old control system. Your migration project is an extraordinary opportunity to leverage new technologies to control your process optimally and invest in the long-term success of your operation. Remember, 25-year-old legacy systems are unlikely to deliver the same advantages that a state-of-the-art modern DCS can. Don’t replicate – innovate.

The right system architecture can help streamline workflows, reduce overhead, and deliver improved diagnostics and analytic support. If you’re considering updates to your process operation system, talk with a trusted partner to learn how a modern DCS can help accelerate your digital transformation or visit for more information.

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