A Controls Modernization Q&A (Part 1 of 2)

Recently I had a talk with one of our business contacts at Atomic Revenue. He was a little confused about the difference between “Legacy Controls Migration” and “Controls Modernization”. QSI has expertise in both, so I decided to have a Q&A session to help him (and anyone reading) understand the differences and what some of the deciding factors might be when choosing which way to go.

AR: Tell me a little bit about the difference between modernization and migration.

QSI: So a migration you would typically call a “legacy controls migration”.

The first step is a migration, as it sounds like, where you’re really replacing old legacy hardware or software, because you’re trying to eliminate a risk factor. You’re moving that to the latest and greatest platform. It’s an upgrade. You’re upgrading to a newer version of hardware or software to mitigate the risk of downtime.

The manufacturers, they don’t support things forever. What you have may be a version of the software that’s just old, or the hardware is “silver series” which means they’re going to stop making it and supporting it. A lot of times that’s when people start looking into a migration. They’ll think, “Okay, I’m not going to be able to buy this, if my PLC-5 goes out, or it’s going to cost an absurd amount of money to replace this old hardware.” That’s usually when you get people wanting to migrate.

A lot of these systems were designed 2 to 3 decades ago. Many technologies & devices available today offer improved functionality, simpler configuration, cleaner programming integration, and more data for the control system.  Many of these devices didn’t exist when the system was originally installed, so you could have designed a great system back then that would be hard to manage and have very basic functionality now. Your productivity and efficiency would have a ceiling, and your ability to scale and upgrade to new devices would be limited. Therefore you migrate, in order to get to the latest and greatest hardware.

Some companies will stop there, because they no longer have the risks. “Modernization”, then, is an extension of a migration. It’s what you would do next.

Modernization is when you would rethink the entire programming and functionality of that system. You could modernize without migration, if, for instance, you put in a system two years ago on a limited budget, maybe you just got some fundamental controls up and running very basic. At that point you might say “I want to start this whole thing over, this is not what we hoped it would be,” and already have had the latest and greatest hardware, it’s just pretty rare. Usually you would see the migration first, and it would lead pretty quickly into a modernization.

At that point you rethink all the programming, you rethink all the overall control functionality of the system, understanding all the new technologies, the new capabilities, the data collection, all the different improvements you could make. You’re essentially starting it over as if it’s a new engineering project. It’s one thing to have 21st century tools, but it’s another to actually use the full functionality of 21st century control systems.

An analogy might be to a home computer. If you have a 10 year old computer, you can get new hardware, such as a faster processor with a new operating system.  This would be equivalent to a migration. Rather than installing new versions of your favorite applications, though, you still re-install 10-year old programs.

Exactly right. You aren’t getting all the benefits of a new PC. You wouldn’t upgrade to a faster hard drive with more RAM, and then use photo editing tools from 2007. A good way to put a bow on migration, when you do that, you’re essentially replicating the system they had before. So you’re handing it back over without any functionality upgrades. So the processor is better and has less risk of failure, but you have the exact same system and performance, ignoring the technology gains of the previous decades. Same control, same alarming, same everything you had before.  You’re not including any new technologies, any communication advancements, new programming standards, or improved PID control. You’re not actually using the new tool, you’re just going to the new tool.

If you take your computer analogy, you upgrade it to the 21st century, then you sit down with your hard wired keyboard and mouse and start working with the 20 year old version of Excel, or maybe playing Oregon Trail [both laughing], you’re doing everything you did 20 years ago.

And you’re not taking advantage of any of the things that are available in the broader market, in the broader world.


It would be taking a very single-minded view, “This is the thing I’m going to do with my system to protect against failure,” as opposed to a modernization is going to open up a lot of opportunities for you to advance.

Yup. I like the computer analogy. You know, you’re worried the old computer is going to break down, so you get yourself a new computer, and you do the exact same tasks. No better, no worse, just with no risk of it crashing and keeping you from doing your work. So I always look at a migration customers as having a set of risks that they’re trying to avoid.

Modernization is saying, “Hey, if I were to do this whole project over today, how would I do it?” And that’s a completely different mindset. That’s why I say it’s really a continuation of a migration. I like to think of them as a 1-2 combination.

Are there signs that indicate one is preferred? Clearly you would say that if you have an old system, first you’re going to go with a migration and then a modernization, and that’s kind of what you’ve already said.

It’s really cost-sensitive. If you’re asking me, what makes somebody’s decision to do one or the other, the first issue is cost. Let’s take two different perspectives. One has a limited budget and only wants to prevent potential risk of downtime. The other is looking at it from a optimizer or efficient operations point of view and saying, I could potentially get higher productivity out of this system. They’re looking for better efficiency, less waste, better data. There’s a lot more  that you can get out of a system if you were to do the project today versus 20 years ago. And those people have that growth mindset to want to do the modernization versus the, “I’m on a budget, and I just want to mitigate my risk.”

So where do you start with a modernization project? I mean, let’s assume that the migration happened, we’ve done the 1. Now, with the modernization, where do you start?

Great. Now you’re on the latest and greatest hardware platform, and you’re saying, whether this was an old system, or a new system that didn’t get put in right, you would treat it as a brand new project. From a control standpoint, you would get into the design philosophy, your I/O, which devices were used to perform the controls that you want to perform, you would probably even redesign the control cabinet to fit their physical requirements, and you would do the sequence of operations to rewrite the entire application.

You would even sit down with their best operators and make sure you understand the ones that get the best results, versus the ones that get poorer results. You would then take those techniques and mold them into the sequence of operations, and then standardize that for all other operators. That would be your approach.

Are there some individuals who are working in a production facility that can get different results out of the same equipment and the same processes? That sounds like what I heard.

Absolutely. And that’s really what sparks that growth mindset. A manager or efficiency engineer would see something in their data, whatever limited data they have, they would see that they got better results from one person over another. They would ask “What are you doing?” and try to replicate that. Therefore one big driver of modernization is seeing different results from different operators and having a desire to standardize around the way the best operators perform those process.

We can program that all in and automate those best practices. Now you’re at the latest hardware and software platform, and there are more integrations, and there is more technology to get that done. So searching for more consistency in operations is one big driver.

And the other mindset is you’ve just got a plant manager or an engineer, that just knows about controls, and understands there are better ways to do it, so you get a lot of continuous improvement engineers inside a facility, or you know, lean manufacturing, Six Sigma types that will just look at the processes and say, “This is outdated, this could be much better. We’ve collected some data and we have this percent downtime and we know that we should be other.”

That’s the other kind of observation, you’ll have an engineer in the facility that’s looking at the bottlenecks of a line and pushing to change out the system. We see both, and again, for each one you basically approach it like a new project and again it depends on their budget.

If you only want to modernize the control, you may not change out any devices. But if you’re really going to do a modernization, that facility would sit down with a mechanical firm, and they would look at the devices they had on their line, and they would ask, “Are there better devices out there? Are there better valves, are there better conveyors, are there better burners?”

Whatever they need for their processes. Then they would come to us with brand-new device list, and we would plan out the control system, the I/O, the application, then start defining the functionality of the system. So again, even a modernization could have, multiple levels, depending on what they want to do.

Okay. You know, we talked about some of the obvious benefits. Reliability, flexibility, upgraded control systems. What are some of the not-so-obvious benefits? You touched on a couple of them. One of those non-obvious benefits is that you can improve lower-performing operators by giving them the tools to do it in the same way as the higher-performing operators. That would be one. What are some others?

Definitely consistency. Plus being able to automate more processes, being able to replicate and standardize performance of your best operators, things that were obvious to them. They might just have an intuition, you know, “do this first, do this next,” but you need to get that education to everyone.

Think back 20 years and the capabilities of everything were so much lower. Then they would just get their systems running. Even the user interfaces were not even close to the same as today. A lot of time they had manual push-buttons instead of HMI touch-screens. Now, flash-forward 20 years later, it’s so different. Think of the changes in video games; back then it was a very simple input pattern, all you could do was say “up” or “down”, something like that. Now you have all these new technologies that you can integrate in. So you’re rethinking the whole operator interface, which allows you to standardize on your best operators.

Another one is scalability. It kind of goes along the same lines. There are new technologies, new analysis software, even data historian packages that allow you to collect data on how well things are running, all these things integrate much more seamlessly into an upgraded platform.

You could continue to modernize by saying “I want to rewrite because back then, we only had these tools and now we have these tools.” Then you could take it a step further and say, “I also want to replace all these devices, because I know there are much better devices out there and I could get even better control.” So again, there’s different stages of what you can do so scalability is important. When you modernize a system you should be able to integrate new technologies much more seamlessly.

That’s the end of the first half of our conversation. I was really glad we got into an explanation of the different mindsets between simple downside avoidance and the growth mindset . Next time we’ll get into Frankenstein, spaghetti code, and the ROI of each.

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