Creating a sound planning strategy for industrial systems is a lot like financial planning. In planning for a secure retirement, a sound plan must include many considerations, some which can be easily quantified, and some which cannot.

Figure 1: Criteria used in planning for future of an industrial plant/process.

Planning For Retirement

Quantifiable factors:

  • Current assets.
  • Anticipated inflation rate.

Non-quantifiable factors:

  • Expected standard of living.
  • Expected duration of “active” lifestyle.
  • Tolerance for risk.

Financial planners are well-equipped with the tools and skills necessary to help a client assess where he/she stands in relation to each of these considerations. In many cases, this involves putting numbers to factors that are typically non-measurable. By doing this, the financial planner is able to determine the financial strategy that helps the client meet their retirement goals, and the client has the confidence to justify taking action.

Figure 2: A simple model to structure analysis of the future of an automated industrial process.

But what about the life of an industrial plant or process? Like the client of the financial planner, industrial facility operators also have important decisions to make to keep facility assets working at peak performance for an amount of time that’s not so predetermined. In planning for the future, end users frequently cite one or more of four criteria (Figure 1), only two of which typically are measured.

Since criteria two and four are difficult to measure, they often are considered only as tools to politically reinforce or overturn decisions justified by the others. This could result in derailing good investment decisions based only on “gut feel”— not a good strategy for retirement or industrial process planning.
The key to creating a successful "Life Plan" for an industrial process lies in the ability to balance considerations from all four of these criteria in a logical way.

The sample (Figure 2) represents a simple model by which to structure an analysis of the future of an automated industrial process, and provides examples of the data that would help quantify each of these criteria in simple terms.

CRITERIA 1: Maintenance Cost Reductions

Electronic products from any manufacturer that were manufactured in the 80s and early 90s are based on components, such as memory chips and microprocessors, that are no longer available on the open market. Moving to a platform that uses modern electronic technologies can significantly reduce the costs of spare parts and extend the working life of the process or machine.

Sample of information to be collected: Cost per hour of downtime, both in terms of maintenance labor as well as in lost production

CRITERIA 2: Future Modifications & Expansions

If a process or machine needs to be functionally modified or expanded, doing so with an aging PLC platform will likely add costs and complexity for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Older PLC platforms may not be able to interface with today’s high performance networks without expensive bridges and gateways.
  • Buying additional racks, I/O cards, CPUs and other accessories for an obsolete product line may be cost-prohibitive.
  • Adding functionality to a decades-old ladder logic program, without a negative impact on current performance, can require significant engineering time and specialized talent.

Sample of information to be collected: Weighted judgments on specific non-financial motivators, such as industry growth potential and environmental sensitivity.

CRITERIA 3: Plant/Process Efficiency

In its early stages, an industrial process exhibits tremendous gains in productivity as new equipment is employed, information systems are integrated, startup problems are resolved, and personnel become more efficient.

As a plant or process ages, its efforts to continue to increase productivity could be limited by several factors, including:

  • Capacity of equipment: Existing machines originally designed for a certain throughput may need to undergo significant redesign to make an impact on efficiency.
  • Manual troubleshooting: Older production systems need more time to recover from unscheduled downtime.
  • Inefficient level of spare inventory: As systems age, the right mix of spare production equipment becomes critical. Too much inventory drives up costs, while too little creates downtime risk.
  • Flexibility of engineering and service personnel: Incremental expansions and modifications may employ a mixture of various pieces of equipment from several different vendors. This would have a negative impact on the flexibility of maintenance personnel and controls engineers that service the entire operation.

Sample of information to be collected:

  • The target and actual production rate for the entire facility.
  • The process used to dispatch maintenance personnel.
  • The average inventory turnover, in parts per year.
  • The size and experience level of maintenance & engineering staff.

CRITERIA 4: Safety & Security Improvements

Today’s business climate demands attention to serious safety and security threats such as terrorism, identity theft, workplace accidents, industrial sabotage, environmental and product liability, public safety, process traceability, and natural disasters. With proper planning and design of safeguards, the risks and recovery costs of these events can be minimized.

Sample of information to be collected:

  • Which safety standards the end user is required to comply with.
  • NFPA-70E requirements the end user already meets.

As is the case in retirement planning, an industrial end user shouldn’t have to create this industrial Life Plan alone. A reputable electrical automation supplier or industry consultant can streamline this process with tools that are specifically designed to accommodate the needs of their customer base.
Regardless of how it’s created, a viable, credible plan can help an industrial facility maintain its competitive edge and serve as a living legacy for the proud employees that contributed to its own success.

Robb Dussault can be reached at