How can we ensure support and expertise on legacy systems?

Some of today’s advanced factories have technical equipment that was installed several decades ago, and the systems in the factory have been subject to radical changes. Technology has also been changing drastically. Where equipment used to be manually operated, mechanical devices are now automated devices with more computer power than the largest computers used to have.

The expertise needed to operate and service these devices is also changing radically, where the old devices and systems needed expertise within mechanical machining and electrical power, today’s system needs are within signalling and computer science. What this means for you as a plant owner is that with all these technology shifts, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the expertise to service and maintain legacy systems.

Sometimes the effect of other kinds of decisions also put you in trouble with your old systems. For instance, one company offered employees in one of its division’s early retirements and the good news was that about 80% of the employees took advantage of the offer. The bad news was that early retirement meant that many of the employees who knew how to maintain the company’s legacy systems had just walked out the door, and they no longer had anyone that could service the system, meaning they no longer had the required expertise to maintain the system.

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Isn’t the OEM the expert on these systems?

The OEMs equipment providers are always working hard to be the leading in their technology – and use most of their resources on R&D to develop the newest and most cutting-edge technology. This turns the focus on to new products, new systems, and bringing them to the market. So, it’s natural that the OEMs need to educate their own employees on how to serve customers that need to install new systems. Also, your own organisation is supposed to be the expert on your plant, knowing the plant and the equipment within it.

Your employees know the system as it is now and even tomorrow, but do they know how to slowly upgrade the systems to move your plant in a direction of a more modern plant? Is your installation large enough to build up a team of experts to support each other and develop the plant? And maybe most importantly, is your team large enough to maintain the expertise even when your experts retire? If your answer is yes to all 3 questions, then you can probably say you are not dependent on the OEM.

On the other hand, what is often the case is that your installation is a big mix-up of old and new technology, and you most likely have people that are experts on a few systems and technologies, which leads you to be vulnerable even when only one employee retires or leaves. You might also see that employees are not that interested in maintaining or building expertise in old equipment, but rather want to work with the newest technology available. Solving the challenge of serving and maintaining the old part of your factory isn’t necessarily that easy, but luckily there are options. Normally, the market exists of more than OEMs. Their partners are often reliable suppliers that are focused on harvesting their investment in employees and maintain their expertise, instead of following the newest technologies and repeatedly training their employees in new technology. System integrators are also an alternative to partners, as they can also have a lot of knowledge on different systems.

Can partners be an alternative?

Partners, often called Channel partners, have access to the OEM’s full product line and the tools to maintain and update the products. Especially when considering microprocessor-based products that often needs updating, for example firmware, software updates, and similar. Installations and awareness of these updates requires a high degree of expertise on the system, and channel partners of OEMs are continuously informed about any changes in the system and product status. Furthermore, the channel partners are usually small to medium sized companies that are more flexible than large OEMs and can therefore be easier to work with.

Lifetime extension strategies

When looking at how to support legacy systems, it is important to look into all possible support solutions. This includes direct support from the OEMs, channel partners or system integrators. We will highlight the challenges in assessing the lifespan of automation systems in a future-oriented perspective with associated strategies, decisions, and more at our conference in a couple of weeks.

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For strategies around lifetime extension: