The legendary PLC 5 product line officially becomes obsolete this year after more than a decade of protests from customers with large installed bases of these products. This may not be front page news, but is the tip of the iceberg that represents a crisis for manufacturers in all sectors of the industrialized world. At the same time this a huge opportunity for the suppliers of control technology to take advantage of the emerging Industrial Internet of Things trend as part of the large scale replacement of obsolete technology with new.
We are in an extraordinary period of time in which many control technologies are becoming obsolete. We have accumulated the installed base of 25 to 30 years worth of control systems, PLCs, VFDs, servos, you name it. Industrial control suppliers have been selling billions of dollars of equipment year in and year out. Some of that equipment has aged out, become obsolete and been replaced.
However, obsolete in this case is not the same as what happens when a new cellphone or computer model is available. Most control suppliers build equipment with an expected minimum life span of 10 years with 10 years of repair and replacement parts available. Plants with large capital expenditures for control, like the auto makers, semicondutor, pharmaceutical, utility and others, have enormous amounts of equipment on hand that must be kept running at all times.
The risk for these companies is not that a control component will fail, it is that there will be no repair or direct replacement when there is a failure. Where expensive machinery or processes are running and everything is working perfectly, it is sometimes difficult to make the decision to spend a lot of money and tear down a control system and do a re-control.
Most often the cost of a complete re-control of a machine is around 10% of the cost of a new machine. It is often less than the cost of downtime that will certainly be incurred if there is a failure and there are no replacement parts to be found.
For the manufacturer making a product, there is no easy way to tell management that you have to perform and expensive machine upgrade. Capital budgets have to be planned out to conserve the needed cash for a retrofit project. But in the long run, if you have equipment that has run relatively trouble free for 10 or 15 years (or more), then planning a control system upgrade is a smart investment to secure another 10 years of trouble free operation.
The beauty of it is that newer controls are more compact, less expensive and have greater functionality than anything we could have come up with 10 years ago. And that new functionality can usually be translated into tangible benefits for the business.
So be looking through your plant for systems that you can’t afford to have fail.