Obsolescence Management in the Chemical Process Industries

Published by Patrick McConville on

Reducing Unplanned Outages in the Chemical Process Industries (CPI)

As the complexity and connectivity of Industrial Automation and Control Systems (IACS) have expanded, obsolescence management in the chemical process industries has become increasingly important within the chemical process industries. Customers are experiencing unforeseen rises in unscheduled outages that can be attributed to obsolescence issues.

Maintaining legacy process equipment and controls hardware has been an issue for several decades, but as manufacturers strive for greater productivity and process efficiency the issue has been exacerbated with the addition of lots of sensors and monitoring equipment for data gathering.

Over time, equipment and components pass through different ‘stages of obsolescence’ until they are no longer supported by the manufacturer.

The issue is further compounded by the use of software and firmware, which become obsolete as soon as an update becomes available. Out of date software results in the potential for a serious cyber security breach.

With Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT), it is becoming imperative to manage the obsolescence of both hardware and software.

Industry 4.0

Why is obsolescence planning an issue in the Chemical Process Industries?

In highly regulated sectors, like the chemical process industries, it may seem that keeping on top of technological change and the regulatory requirements that sometimes accompany them is a daunting task. However, obsolescence planning in this constantly changing environment is more crucial than ever before.

Good obsolescence management has benefits for functional safety, cyber security, plant availability and, of course, profitability.

The rate of change in the area of automation technology is notably faster in comparison to the equipment that it controls. For instance, when a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) reaches the end of its life and requires attention, its potential replacement must meet several criteria.

How available are spare parts? Does the new PLC connect to the rest of the system in the same way as the old one? How easy is it to modify? And how maintainable are the firmware and software?

Even when attempting to manage all these issues effectively, plant operators have no control over their suppliers or indeed the component manufacturer. A manufacturer may well decide to embark unexpectedly on a programme of upgrades, rendering a wide range of products obsolete in one sweep.

Fortunately, hardware manufacturers generally give advance notice as to when a hardware or software component is reaching its end of life and have a system in place for notifying and assisting customers as the hardware or component reaches obsolescence.

Warnings may be given at certain stages of a product’s lifecycle such as the last opportunity to buy the product and when it is no longer supported. It should be noted, however, that a manufacturer’s notifications may not always be accurate.

Reactive Obsolescence Management: Legacy equipment still being used

According to the ARC Advisory Group, a significant amount of the older, legacy equipment is still out there. It may well still be functional but was built at a time when concerns such as interconnectivity and cybersecurity were a long way from becoming serious issues. Legacy equipment may not meet modern Regulations and Standards, for instance, in functional safety.

With all this in mind, managing obsolescence is a process that should be seen as being much more than merely replacing a component once it is worn out. This old reactive approach is simply not going to work in the modern, evolving world of industrial control systems.  Obsolescence should be planned for and proactively managed throughout the lifecycle of systems, equipment, and components.

The Future of Obsolescence Management

The future is never fully knowable, but it is evident that the pace of obsolescence has been increasing. Our customers tell us about their issues.

There is a drive in all industries towards complete automation and interconnectivity. Imagine a world where driverless trucks, with temperature-controlled trailers, synced to the cloud and all the other trucks in the fleet, deliver ingredients to a completely automated factory. The end product is prepared and packaged by a robot, then placed in another driverless truck for delivery to the supermarket. Now imagine how much existing hardware and software would have to be replaced to realise this vision.

Alarming as these predictions may be to some, one can only presume it will happen only if it is cost effective, efficient and meets the regulations put in place to control it.

The IEC 62402 Standard

The IEC 62402 Standard sets the requirements and provides guidance for obsolescence management.

It recognises that as the quantity of ageing equipment and software increases, the need to collect, manage and analyse obsolescence data also increases. This data should then be used to determine whether a system or component needs to be replaced, when it is due to be replaced, or if it can be used somewhere else.

There is an increasing demand to demonstrate compliance with this and other Standards and Regulations across all of the process industries.

Planned Obsolescence

Not to be confused with Obsolescence Management is the concept of Planned Obsolescence. This has been around since the start of the car industry in the 1920s and is the process by which a product is given an artificially limited lifespan. In effect, it will become obsolete in a planned and deliberate way, the rationale being that it generates greater sales volume over the long term.

Those for it argue that planned obsolescence drives competitiveness and speeds the development of technology, leading to the improvement of goods and services. The argument against is that it is clearly wasteful and that it exploits end users.

This is not a huge issue in terms of industrial control systems in the chemical process industries, except in the use of automation control software and proprietary software. Software companies will eventually stop supporting older versions of their products when it is no longer economic to do so. Indeed, in some cases, they will deliberately stop supporting a particular version to force customers to upgrade.

However, it should be recognised that software needs to be continually updated to account for evolving cyber vulnerabilities. This is the primary reason for proactively managing software obsolescence.

Obsolescence Planning

Many factors go into an effective obsolescence management strategy. At the very least, a strategy should aim to identify the components and systems that are at risk of obsolescence, how critical they are, and what stage in the obsolescence lifecycle they are at.

A strategy should assess which obsolescence risks are acceptable and which are not, and what the best approach to deal with the risk is, whether to remove the risk entirely or merely mitigate against it.

An effective strategy should also look for ways to extend the life of legacy items, ensure that obsolescence does not affect business continuity, and have a long-term plan for the industrial control system. Replacing old components for new ones should not be done in isolation but be part of a bigger picture.

It is also important to consider the training and expertise of the people implementing the strategy. It is clearly better to be replacing assets based on an expert view, rather than reacting arbitrarily due to a lack of knowledge and potential disposal of components years before it was really necessary.

Chemical Process Industry staff

In some circumstances, buying obsolete hardware components that other companies are disposing of can be a cost-effective strategy. When a buyer has the opportunity to extend the life of an asset, this may be an option worth looking at.

Similarly, EU Automation warns of the hidden cost of buying new equipment, which may include the need to upgrade adjacent equipment, lengthy regulatory assessments and potential training gaps. They also warn that the rate of change in the industry is now so quick that newly purchased components can become obsolete well before they are worn out and that a part need not necessarily be disposed of just because an OEM has stopped making it.

New and developing software and technology exist that can help with obsolescence management. With the increasing prominence of cloud computing and the development of the Internet of Things (IoT), the collection and correlation of data are easier than it has ever been. By collecting and analysing performance, maintenance, and financial data it is potentially possible to determine the exact point at which any given asset should be replaced.

Individual circumstances will affect the obsolescence strategy that a company will apply, but in general, the aim should largely be the same. To identify the most critical equipment and components, plan upgrades, reduce the costs associated with obsolescence, have enough critical spares on hand to aid business continuity, and reduce the risks associated with legacy equipment.

With so many factors, risks and issues, a clear and encompassing obsolescence management strategy, that is compliant, cost-efficient and forward looking are essential to any industrial control system reliant business that wishes to remain competitive.

Obsolescence Planning with Asset Guardian

Asset Guardian Plan for Obsolescence infographic

Asset Guardian has been developed to help with compliance with the IEC 62402 Obsolescence Management Standard, it follows the methodology described in the Standard and uses a 5-step strategy to manage obsolescence in a cost-effective and efficient manner.

It is used to identify the systems and components that need to be prioritised so that budgets can be targeted effectively.

All the data managed by an Asset Guardian system are fully linked, searchable and auditable. It provides a standalone obsolescence management tool or can be utilised as an integrated cyber security and disaster recovery management system.

Asset Guardian provides the ability to:

  • Store data for hardware and software in a central secure repository, making it easy to quickly manage and search for information.
  • Analyse data to develop obsolescence management strategies, per the Standard.
  • Monitor the obsolescence dates of hardware and software managed within a central database.
  • Manage Mean Time Between Failure data.
  • Generate customised reports and graphs.
  • Ensure that the correct version of the software is in use, enhancing functional safety, cyber security and plant availability.
  • Interface with other software systems, such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems to facilitate the sharing of data and information across an organisation
  • Develop workable, cost-effective strategies based on the methodology of the Standard
  • Link to Asset Guardian’s configuration change management function, enabling the effective control of any changes made

For more information or to schedule a demonstration, please contact us today. 

Written by Patrick McConville.