The rising issue of Obsolescence in the Food and Beverage Industry

Published by Graham Foss on
Issues of Obsolescence

The Issues of Obsolescence

As the use of automation in the Food and Beverage industry increases and as time goes by, equipment becomes old, worn out or no longer supported by the supplier. The replacement of any given bit of equipment may have a knock on effect to other parts of the process and inevitably the entire system will become a mixture of old and new assets. The complications are further increased by the use of computer hardware and software, with each part of the system interacting with the other in varied, and sometimes unseen, ways.

In the Food and Beverage industry in particular, with the rise of so much new technology and regulations it may sometimes seem that keeping on top of it all is a Sisyphean task. However, managing obsolescence in this constantly changing environment is more critical than ever before.

The rate of change in the area of automation technology is notably faster in comparison to the equipment that it controls. For instance, as a PLC reaches the end of its life and requires attention, its potential replacement must consider many questions. How available are spare parts? Does the new PLC connect to the rest of the system differently to the old one? How easy to modify is it, and how maintainable are the components, firmware and software?

Even when attempting to manage all of these issues effectively, companies have no control over their suppliers or indeed the people that supply their suppliers. A supplier may well decide unexpectedly to embark on an aggressive programme of upgrades, rendering a wide range of products obsolete in one sweep.

Thankfully hardware manufacturers generally give warning when an item 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 life cycle such as the end of life, the last opportunity to buy the product and when it is no longer supported. It should be noted, however, that a manufacture’s notifications may not always be accurate.

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 in a time when concerns such as interconnectivity and cyber-security were a long way from becoming issues. Legacy equipment may also not meet modern regulations and standards, for instance, in safety and traceability.

With all this in mind, managing obsolescence is a process that should be seen as being much more than merely replacing a single part once it is old or worn out. This old reactive approach is simply not going to work in the modern, evolving world of automation.  Obsolescence should be planned for and accounted for throughout the lifecycles of systems, assets, equipment and components.

The Future of Obsolescence

The future, of course, is never fully knowable, but it is evident that the pace of obsolescence has been increasing. There is a ceaseless 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 other trucks in the fleet, deliver ingredients to a completely automated factory. The end product is prepared and packaged by 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 in order 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.

Another developing technology, 3D printing, may also be set to revolutionise the way that obsolescence is managed. NASA has been experimenting with the 3D printing of spare parts for the International Space Station as an alternative to the obviously costly alternative of sending them up by rocket. Other, more terrestrial organisations are now beginning to look into 3D printing as a way of producing small and simple spare parts.

It is possible 3D printing will become the best way of replacing hard to find obsolete hardware parts and components, but currently the process is too limited and costly. It is also a long way from, and may never be able to, making electronics and will obviously never be able to address software obsolescence.

The IEC 62402 Standard

The IEC 62402 Industry standard, released by the International Electrotechnical Commission, is the Application guide for Obsolescence management.

The standard sets out the objectives of obsolescence management, to ensure that obsolescence is managed as an integral part of design, development, production and in-service support in order to minimize cost and detrimental impact throughout the product life cycle.

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

There is an increasing demand to demonstrate compliance to this and other standards and regulations across all of the manufacturing industry, including the Food and Beverage sector.

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 arguments against is that it is clearly wasteful and that it exploits consumers.

This is not a huge issue in terms of automation in the Food & Beverage industry, 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 in order to force customers to upgrade.

The good news is that generally these practices are seen as a bad thing. The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) said in 2013 that it was working on a total ban on planned obsolescence. It was seen that designing products that were made to cease functioning after a few years was not only wasteful of resources and energy, but also generated needless pollution.

Managing Obsolescence

There are many factors that go into an effective obsolescence strategy. At a minimum, the strategy should aim to identify the assets that are at risk of obsolescence, how critical they are, and what stage in the obsolescence lifecycle they are at.

The 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 obsolescence management strategy should also look for ways to extend the life of legacy items, attempt to ensure that obsolescence does not affect business continuity, and have a long term plan for the system has a whole. The replacement of old items for new 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 lack of knowledge and potential disposing of items years before it was really necessary.

There is also an argument made that in some circumstances buying in obsolete assets that other companies are disposing of can be a cost effective strategy. When the buyer has the ability to extend the life of the equipment longer, or even indefinitely, this is 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 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 exists that can help with obsolescence management. With the increasing prominence of cloud computing and the development of the Internet of Things, the collection and correlation of data is easier than it has ever been. By collecting and assessing 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 is essential to any automation reliant business that wishes to remain competitive.

Managing Obsolescence with Asset Guardian

Asset Guardian has been designed with obsolescence in mind. Developed to comply with the IEC 62402 Obsolescence Management standard, it uses a 5-step strategy to manage obsolescence in a cost-effective and efficient manner.

It can be used to prioritize assets and components, target budgets effectively and extend the life of equipment. As all data is fully integrated, searchable and auditable, it aids the development of a solid Obsolescence Management strategy.

Asset Guardian provides the ability to:

  • Store data for hardware and software in a central location, making it easy to quickly search and sort information.
  • Analyse data to determine when an item must be replaced.
  • Monitor the expiration dates of equipment and software manufacturer service contracts.
  • Enable a seamless interface with third-party data modelling software tools that predict failure rates, and produce a graphic representation of these rates.
  • Generate customised reports and graphs.
  • Ensure that the correct version of software is in use, enhancing functional safety, security and production
  • Seamlessly interface with other company management systems, such as Enterprise Management Software Systems (SAP/Maximo for example) to maximise a company’s return on investments and make it easy to share data and knowledge across the organisation
  • Plan your strategies through Risk Assessment and Prioritising
  • Maximise your return on investment in Asset Guardian by utilising common data across all functions of Asset Guardian software
  • Link AG Management of Change (MoC) to AG Obsolescence Manager™ enabling the effective control of any changes made
  • Receive automatic reminders of reviews and corrective actions due

Written by Graham Foss. As one of AGSL’s team of Technical Consultants, Graham Foss is responsible for implementing the company’s product development and technology strategy. Before joining AGSL in 2016, Graham was employed for 12 years as a lead software engineer at Aker Solutions Subsea Ltd, where he worked on projects in the North Sea, North Atlantic and Norway. Graham holds a degree in Computing from Edinburgh’s Napier University in Edinburgh, where he graduated with distinction. A Chartered Engineer, he is a member of the Institution ofEngineering and Technology (IET).