Remember floppy disks? They are a classic example of a product being rendered obsolete because of more modern alternatives. The same issue occurs in processing plant legacy equipment. However, it is often not as simple as upgrading to a shiny new USB. 

Obsolescence management has never been so important. In the ongoing fight to keep up with competition from Asia, manufacturers across the U.S. are looking for ways to increase efficiency and cost-effectiveness without breaking the bank. This has led to reliance on legacy and obsolete systems. 

It is impossible to stop parts from becoming obsolete, but it is possible to mitigate the risks to production when obsolescence inevitably occurs. At the time when legacy parts need replacing, important decisions need to be made — should a replacement for the part be sourced, or should the entire system be written off? 

This decision will have a huge impact on the business’s bottom line, therefore the decision should be planned in advance. Consider the following as an example. A human machine interface panel in a facility has broken down. Unfortunately, it is a discontinued model, so the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) cannot provide an exact replacement and plant personnel are struggling to find a new model that will integrate with other hardware.

Some manufacturers might deem it necessary to write off the entire system when a part breaks down simply because they do not believe they can find the same model or equivalent. Rather than embarking on a costly overhaul, personnel should have a replacement plan in place. 

The replacement 

Although choosing to upgrade to a newer, but undoubtedly more expensive, piece of equipment might seem like the easy option, the benefits of sourcing obsolete spares might surprise you. Moreover, obsolete does not mean a part is unobtainable.

In fact, several options allow operators access to obsolete parts. This includes using existing stock, last-time buy options, sourcing from an aftermarket supply, finding an alternate replacement from the same or a different manufacturer, or finding the nearest equivalent substitute part. But what if an exact replacement is necessary?

Consider the chemicals industry as an example. When a breakdown occurs, manufacturers in this sector will be in a situation in which, for traceability and validation purposes, the new part needs to be identical in every way to the old one. Unfortunately, because of the long life span of most upstream applications, the old part is often obsolete. 

The company may not have the time or financial resources to wait for the part to come from old stock elsewhere in the business. Equally, a site manager cannot stock all the parts needed in inventory because it can be counterproductive to keep large stocks of rarely purchased items. 

Priorities 

Depending on the process, plant managers will have different system priorities. While those who use batch manufacturing have the luxury of regularly stopping production to do maintenance work, those with continuous processes do not. This means chemical or food manufacturers that use continuous production methods need to choose the most reliable system since it will have to run until the next annual shutdown. 

For some, this could mean a legacy system that maintenance engineers know is the best option. For others, it could mean that the latest generation of intelligent automation equipment is ideal. This is down to each individual facility and company policy. Regardless of the process type, the ability to identify secondary sources and spare parts in advance is vital. 

Priorities can depend on the size of the company involved. Large businesses may choose to hire an obsolescence manager, employ the services of a third-party specialist, purchase a computerized asset management system, or on a much smaller scale, simply use spreadsheets to keep records of product life cycles. 

Whatever the method, obsolescence management comes down to assessing current systems and supply resources, conducting risk analysis on all parts and securing access to obsolete spares. An integral part of this process is to forge relationships with reliable automation spares suppliers. After all, knowing whom to call when a part breaks down could be the difference between a day or a week of downtime.

It is also crucial to know the lead times for the supply of such replacements. For example, if it takes one month to receive and install the replacement part, plant managers need to think one month ahead. 

This begs the question, how can managers forecast the breakdown of a part one month ahead of time?

Predictive maintenance

Concepts such as the Internet of Things and Industry 4.0 drive industrial connectivity to profound new levels. As a result, this technology helps manufacturers forge obsolescence management plans using data collected from machinery. The increasing number of sensors in processing facilities means that manufacturers can gain greater insight into machinery health. This can identify potential problems in specific pieces of equipment and accurately predict when a breakdown is likely to occur. 

Some intelligent software is delivered with predictive analytics and maintenance capabilities built in. This feature automatically identifies equipment with signs of wear and, based on historical data, can intelligently predict when a breakdown is likely to occur. This enables manufacturers to tackle equipment problems before they cause downtime because they can order the obsolete part ahead of time. 

Data can range from maintenance reports to expected lifetime statistics and sensor data. However, choosing the right format to visualize this data is vital to producing the desired results. Usually real-time data from sensors or programmable logic controllers is used in predictive maintenance systems because it can be visualized into a graph or chart for an engineer to analyze. However, highly intelligent systems can also provide automatic alerts to notify operators when a machine shows signs of wear.

The complexity of this technology will vary depending on the specific needs of the plant. 

Conclusion

Obsolete spares in processing have a time and place. While planning and system understanding is essential for any plant manager who undertakes obsolescence management, it is also true that help is at hand when sourcing replacements rapidly. 

By working with an obsolete industrial parts supplier that knows the industry in-depth and can source all the necessary parts, manufacturers can take a load off their minds while maintaining stride with the competition. While floppy disks may be a thing of the past, legacy equipment does not need to be.   

 

Jonathan Wilkins is marketing director of industrial automation components supplier, EU Automation. A professional brand advocate and commercial marketing strategist, he focuses on delivering growth via a multichannel approach. Wilkins has been part of the EU Automation team since its beginning nine years ago and has more than a decade of experience in marketing. He can be reached at jonathan.wilkins@euautomation.com. Visit euautomation.com/us for more information.