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Smart manufacturing technology can leave old systems behind

Smart technology like IIoT is changing the way manufacturers operate, but they face issues with older unconnected systems. Should they rip and replace or retrofit the stranded assets?

Manufacturing operations are evolving rapidly, as manufacturers are increasingly implementing smart manufacturing...

technology to improve processes.

Smart manufacturing technology, including the industrial internet of things (IIoT), changes the way companies operate. But older systems and equipment that are not smart can end up stranded. This raises a major question for manufacturers: How can they connect these stranded assets without having to rip and replace entire infrastructures?

Operational technology has much longer change cycles

The bottom line is that, in manufacturing, there's actually very little rip and replace; rather, it's mostly retrofitting, add-ons and attachments, according to Kristian Steenstrup, an analyst at Gartner.

In information technology, if an enterprise has a new standard or wants to do something different, it's likely that the company would need to change out all its laptops or servers to a new generation within three to five years, Steenstrup said.

But, in an operational technology (OT) environment, the change out cycle is decades long -- 20 to 30 years -- and the cost of those assets is hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars.

Consequently, there's a longevity with OT and the industrial side that makes organizations not even consider the concept of rip and replace. It's not a discussion and it doesn't come up, Steenstrup said.

"There is no justifiable reason and no way companies can feasibly rip and replace complex manufacturing environment equipment and the OT systems related to that equipment just because they want to capture more data or put a new release out or whatever," he said.

In some cases, manufacturers will install next-generation products as they develop new plants, but new plants aren't constructed all that frequently.

Adding new sensors to old equipment

Many manufacturers have assets that have inadequate controls and inadequate infrastructure, and they're also missing resources for storing data.
Keith Flynnsenior director of product management, Aspen Technology

However, manufacturers can connect their machines to their networks and to each other by using sensors and communications capabilities, as well as improved IIoT technology, particularly as IoT devices become cheaper to acquire and easier to deploy.

"Many manufacturers have assets that have inadequate controls and inadequate infrastructure, and they're also missing resources for storing data," said Keith Flynn, senior director of product management at Aspen Technology, an industrial software company based in Bedford, Mass.

"We can piece together more components of IoT and still deliver the high-value business outcomes in that environment," Flynn said. "We can retrofit the manufacturing equipment and then transmit it using wireless networks so there's no need for network infrastructure. And we can overcome the hurdle where some of these manufacturing environments do not have on-site data centers and we can go right to cloud."

Many organizations are already capturing data from their OT systems, according to Steenstrup.

"Because if you've got a protection control circuit on a plant, if you've got an operational system in a plant that's managing the business, it probably already is detecting vibrations and temperatures and voltages and currents usage, and it's a matter of tapping into that," he said. "So one aspect is not so much retrofitting but leveraging data in systems that already exists."

Dan Miklovic, principal analyst at LNS Research based in Cambridge, Mass., agreed that there are add-on IIoT-type products that can help prepare legacy assets for smart manufacturing technology.

"Pretty much every manufacturer we talk to has some degree of that on some of their equipment," he said. "Everybody is asking which assets make the most sense for us to retrofit. [That's an asset] that performs well and has local intelligence, but the information it's using or gathering can't be shared. So I just need to retrofit it and maybe add a sensor or two and all of a sudden it'll fit into my smart strategy."

However, there are some assets that manufacturers might be better off replacing because it might cost too much to retrofit them, and the current generation of smart manufacturing technology is much more capable, Miklovic said.

"In other words, maybe the asset I'm thinking about retrofitting has accuracy down to a tenth of a millimeter, but everything you can buy today -- and the current state of the market -- is accurate to a hundredth of a millimeter," he said. "So, all of a sudden, I'm asking, 'Do I really want to keep this machine which is 10 years old and it's essentially written off or do I want to replace it?'"

No such thing as a greenfield system

The reality is that there are no greenfield deployment systems, said Richard Soley, chairman and CEO at Object Management Group in Needham, Mass.

"Every system is built on top of stuff that's been there for 10, 15, 20, 35 years, so they have to be retrofitted," he said. "But [companies] often don't know what they have because nobody has ever mapped it, and somebody else has installed it 30 years ago and he or she is retired."

But it's not only OT, it's also IT -- although it's probably worse in OT because systems don't refresh as often, Soley said.

In the case of OT, in manufacturing especially, once a piece of equipment is on the floor, it's taking up space. Because a company has this installed capital, it's not going to move the thing. But if the organization can't find the machine because it's not on its current map of installed systems, no one is even going to know if it needs to be pulled out or updated.

"I have a friend who was deputy CIO of Xerox. He had been there for six months and, one day, he had the CIO meet him at the main machine room in Rochester," Soley said. "They walked into the machine room and the deputy CIO turned off a mainframe. The operators were totally aghast. The CIO asked, 'What the hell are you doing?' My friend said, 'Nobody is using this, but you didn't know that.' They were leasing this machine for a couple million a year, they had software running on it that was probably another 10 million a year and nobody knew that no one was using it."

Because manufacturers typically don't have their operational workforces and their IT workforces under one roof, they have to look at what they have and identify what they need, according to Flynn. This usually involves working with companies, such as system integrators, to figure out their needs and determine where they could benefit from retrofitting.

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