Breaking Free of Control System ‘Lock-In’

There is no escaping the fact that many of today’s process manufacturing plants need to modernize. As Emerson’s Aaron Crews explains in his recent article in Control Engineering,

“Plants are often using technologies that are 20 to 40 years old. In many cases, the control system is reaching end of support, which can lead to many problems.”

Between supply chain disruptions making it hard to source new parts for aging systems, and a shrinking workforce increasing the difficulty of finding expert personnel, many plants still hesitate to undertake modernization projects. Why? Because they are typically expensive, complex and time consuming.

Replacing the old with the old

Many plants have thousands of wires and dozens of system cabinets that would need to be replaced alongside controllers to enable them to implement a new, modern control system with all the features they seek. Often, the only way modernization teams could get around this problem was to perform incremental upgrades from the same control system manufacturer, but, as Aaron details,

“Such a strategy is unlikely to deliver all the best practice technologies a team needs, and leaves plants ‘locked in’ to a single vendor every time they want to upgrade, regardless of whether or not that vendor offers the required technology and support.”

A better way means less downtime

Aaron explains that a new technology is changing the paradigm of modernizations. I/O-agnostic interfaces return flexibility and control system choice to the user. Instead of ripping and replacing all the legacy I/O in the plant, the modernization team instead connects an I/O-agnostic interface directly to the new control system and legacy I/O, leaving the old wiring and terminations in place.

The benefits of transitioning control technologies using an I/O-agnostic interface are numerous. First, and perhaps most importantly, the project team can dramatically reduce downtime. Where a traditional modernization might take months or years,

“Leveraging an I/O-agnostic solution can dramatically cut modernization time. The project team can instead replace controllers individually, leaving the legacy I/O in place to gain all the benefits of modern control without the cost and hassle of a full rip-and-replace overhaul.”

More flexibility eases budget constraints

Another benefit of using an I/O-agnostic interface is the ability to add fiscal flexibility. Instead of making I/O cutover a massive capital expense, teams shift the cost to operational budgets. The interface is installed and the new control technology activated during the project, but operations can change I/O at its own pace while still running the plant after the project is complete. Those costs can be spread out over months or years, depending on the needs of the facility.

An I/O agnostic interface like Emerson’s IO.CONNECT operates between a new controller and legacy I/O to help teams modernize their control system on their own schedule and budget.

In fact, best-in-class I/O-agnostic solutions like Emerson’s IO.CONNECT are designed around a subscription model for exactly this purpose. Teams can implement their new control technologies immediately, but still run legacy I/O for as long as necessary. Typically, the subscription fees are still significantly less expensive than the maintenance contracts necessary to support legacy systems.

To learn more about how I/O-agnostic solutions like IO.CONNECT can help make your next modernization project a success, you can read the article in its entirety at Control Engineering. And while you’re here, I’d be interested to hear, what else keeps you from tackling the modernization projects you know are overdue? Feel free to comment below to get the conversation started!

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