Obsolescence is the natural consequence of continuous advances in technology. As such, it is impossible to eliminate it completely. However, it is possible to manage it strategically to minimize its negative impact on your business.

Managing Obsolescence in Industry 4.0 - Obsolete Doesn’t Mean Game Over
Managing Obsolescence in Industry 4.0 - Obsolete Doesn’t Mean Game Over

Claudia Jarrett, US Country Manager | EU Automation

In September 2018, Sony Japan revealed that it would no longer be repairing its PlayStation 2, closing the curtain on one its most beloved products. This is a classic example of a consumer technology being rendered obsolete by the introduction on the market of a more recent alternative. The same happens in manufacturing, where rapid advances in digital technology are leading to greater obsolescence and the rise in legacy equipment and components. In this scenario, can manufacturers remain competitive without going through a cost-prohibitive factory overhaul? Yes, according to Claudia Jarrett, US country manager at automation parts supplier EU Automation. 

New technologies in the fields artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality and 3D printing are fundamentally changing the manufacturing industry, ushering our society into what experts are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution. 

In this scenario, Germany occupies a position of excellence. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), with 309 industrial robots per 10K employees, Germany is the most automated country in Europe and third most automated country in the world, following South Korea and Singapore. 

However, the backbone of the German economy is primarily comprised of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that might not have the technical and financial resources to invest in sparkling new facilities and state-of-the-art equipment. As a matter of fact, most German manufacturers still rely on legacy machines to run critical applications in their facilities.

This, in itself, is not a problem — if equipment still performs to the desired standards and is compliant to current regulations, there’s no reason to get rid of it. However, there are two major factors to consider when working with legacy equipment: the obsolescence of components and the lack of connectivity. Let’s examine how manufacturers can cope with them, without breaking the bank.


The problem with obsolescence

Obsolescence is the natural consequence of continuous advances in technology. As such, it is impossible to eliminate it completely. However, it is possible to manage it strategically to minimise its negative impact on your business. 

Consider this as an example. A Human Machine Interface (HMI) panel in your facility has broken down. Unfortunately, it is a discontinued model, so you cannot source an exact replacement from the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM). You can potentially find an alternate replacement from the same or a different manufacturer or try to find the nearest equivalent substitute part. 

But what if you need to find an exact replacement? The chemicals industry is a good example. When a breakdown occurs, manufacturers in this sector will be in a situation where, for traceability and validation purposes, the new part will have to be identical in every way to the old one. 

Manufacturers might think that this is hard or impossible to find on the market, hence they might adopt two strategies: substituting the whole machine with an updated version or, worse, opt for the cheapest substitute products. Neither is a good choice. The first is costly, causes long downtime, requires new training for the workforce and ultimately has a negative impact on the environment. 

The second may result in lower performance and shortened product lifecycles, and in some circumstances may expose manufacturers to counterfeit parts. Parts sourced through unauthorised distribution channels, or the grey market, may result in manufacturers inadvertently using counterfeit parts. These will typically lead to high rates of breakages, will almost certainly not be compliant and often pose serious safety hazards. 


Plan strategically

The best option is to have a partnering agreement with a reliable supplier who specialises in obsolete components, so that when obsolete machinery breaks, you’ll have the right contacts to source that part quickly and efficiently. This can be the difference between four hours of downtime or four days.

Even better is to plan ahead by implementing a strategic obsolescence management plan in your facility. This starts with a comprehensive system audit to know the present state of your machinery. How old is your machine and what does the aftermarket supply of parts look like? If you compare your answers with the life expectancy data provided by the OEM, you should be able to determine the life stage of your equipment to know how long it will serve you. 

Make a list of components that are already obsolete and rank them by importance. Critical applications, which are essential to operate the entire system, are ones you should prioritise when putting together an obsolescence plan. 

For components that are already obsolete, evaluate the possibility of stockpiling some spares while they’re still relatively abundant on the market. For end-of-life (EOL) components, OEMs may send a product change notification (PCN), provide customers with a final opportunity to buy parts, and even provide special quotes. This might be the best time to squirrel away some spares.

Based on your analysis of how critical a part is to your process, the speed at which it will wear and its risk of becoming obsolete, you should draw up a plan of where you can source these parts and how quickly. Forming relationships with a specialised supplier is an integral part of a successful obsolescence management plan. 

Finally, collate all the data you’ve gathered into a clear, simple spreadsheet. This information is precious and needs to be readily accessible to the plant’s personnel in case of a component’s failure. 


Retrofitting: the smart option for the smart factory

Now that you have a solid obsolescence management plan, you might want to move a step forward and make your legacy equipment fit for Industry 4.0. Again, a complete factory overhaul might be unnecessary. Not only is this a costly approach, the huge amount of time required to source new parts, uninstall existing equipment and retrain your workforce is enough to rule out this approach. 

Instead, retrofitting your old machinery with connectivity sensors is a far better option. Manufacturers can simply opt for third-party and IoT-ready products such as IoT gateways, OPC servers and sensors, out-of-the-box solutions that can be installed with no downtime.  

This approach can be entirely tailored to the business’s needs, meaning only useful sensors are put in place. Compare this with buying brand new equipment, which would include hundreds of inbuilt sensors that aren’t all relevant to the factory’s needs, and this wrap-and-extend approach is much more suitable. These retrofit sensors can track parameters such as temperature and vibration, to provide valuable insight into the health conditions of your equipment. 

For example, an accelerometer can measure the frequencies at which the rotating element of a machine vibrates. An increase in vibration amplitude signals a problem in the rotational elements of the machine, such as insufficient lubrication. This information can be communicated to a maintenance engineer, who will be able to identify the issue and schedule the necessary repairs before the machine breaks, averting unexpected and costly downtime.

In this example, the manufacturer doesn’t need to purchase a new machine with embedded connectivity, adding an accelerometer is enough. This could mean the difference between a few hundred euros, and tens of thousands. However, this small investment can have a real impact on a business. 

This extends beyond the costs of missed productivity and maintenance caused by unexpected downtime.  Data provided by sensors can help identify in a timely manner when obsolete components need to be replaced, so that plant managers will have time to contact a specialised supplier who will find the best deal on the market.  

Many legacy machines have been built to last and this is definitely a positive. New technology means the lifespan of this legacy equipment can be elongated even further through preventative maintenance schedules. Sony’s PlayStation 2 may be a thing of the past, but your trusted legacy equipment definitely isn’t. 

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of ManufacturingTomorrow

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