Obsolescence of automated systems is an unavoidable part of any manufacturing endeavor. There are many strategies to keep older systems running, such as stockpiling replacement parts and carefully timing equipment upgrades.
In today’s technology-oriented world, most users understand the concept of Moore’s Law. The idea postulated by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, is that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles roughly every two years while the cost of computers is halved. With the prevalence of computing in practically every industry, this growth curve has shown influence in nearly every sector of business and industry. The perpetual increase in computing power leads to a natural fallout that has plagued systems integrators and machine builders: obsolescence.
Many OEMs, with an eye for remaining on the leading edge of new technology and its accompanying competitive advantages, consistently upgrade their equipment catalogs to offer end users the fastest, the most intelligent, the most energy efficient. In an effort to provide better support for the latest and greatest, maintenance and support of older systems falls by the wayside. End users are left with what can quickly become a barren market for spare hardware and even necessary software.
To Stockpile or Not to Stockpile
What may be the most obvious strategy to combat obsolescence can be surprisingly complex. Stockpiling spare parts before they go obsolete can turn into an expensive endeavor when supporting multiple machines or systems, not to mention the storage space needed to hold enough spares for complex operations. Calculating the appropriate amount of stock can be tricky; coming up short on a critical part can shut down production while holding on to too many can leave an end user with a bunch of out-of-warranty, obsolete parts a few years down the road.
So You Stockpiled Too Much
Starting to look like all those spare components you stocked up on just to be safe are going to waste? A key consideration when holding onto safety stock is the warranty expiration date. Holding onto components, even “new” ones whose boxes haven’t been opened, for more than a couple of years will usually render them out of warranty. You can still sell out-of-warranty components on websites like eBay but to state the obvious, prospective buyers are more likely to purchase parts still under manufacturer warranty. On the other hand, you never know when a piece of production equipment is going to fail. That PLC-511 that’s been sitting in the original box for 15 years might just come in handy today or tomorrow.
Short a Circuit?
Working on a new project and coming across a component that needs to be replaced is not an uncommon occurrence. Usually it’s a customer that wants a duplicate of an existing piece of equipment that has been around for a while. If the customer is holding firm to their request for identical components there are few options to choose from.
Replacement components can be found under warranty by going directly to the manufacturer. Often manufacturers will raise the prices on parts that are approaching obsolescence. Many manufacturers tend to issue a warning ahead of time to their customers when one of their products will no longer be supported. On the bright side, many of these components tend to be replaced by an alternative either from the OEM or a third party supplier. Parts still under warranty can be found on eBay as well but, as always, buyer beware!
If the customer isn’t concerned about warranty issues, non-warranty parts can also be found online. It’s good practice to contact the original supplier and inquire about used products as well, perhaps from a demo unit. Usually, when there are no other options other than to use parts out of warranty, it is prudent to buy multiple spares. After all, there is no guarantee or fallback option if an out-of-warranty component does not work, even if it’s “brand new” and still in the original box.
A Note Regarding Software
Many end users will prefer to wait until an equipment upgrade is absolutely necessary in order to delay what many times amounts to a costly project with included downtime. Naturally this will lead to a system with pieces of much older equipment that still need to be supported. As anybody who uses a computer knows, software is constantly updated with revision after revision after revision. Often this will introduce a communication problem between the latest software on an end user’s computer and that obsolete piece of equipment on the production floor. Eventually it may be necessary to find a laptop that’s running an older operating system with very specific cards and adapters to even be able to program your outdated machinery. All of this obviously leads to extra time and equipment in order to support older systems. That added time and cost could potentially make a system upgrade more attractive in the long run.
Planning for Obsolescence in the Design Phase
As machine builders and systems integrators, it is critical to communicate the realities of supporting a new system well into the future. Many customers might have established relationships or comfortability with specific equipment manufacturers and are familiar with their upkeep. Others may have an open mind as they are just getting into automation and don’t have any prior experience with supporting a system. There are clear benefits to using an equipment manufacturer with a good history of supporting their products well into the future. That overseas supplier might have an appealing price tag, but knowledge of the support and maintenance, including cost, time, and availability of parts, is crucial.
Obsolescence is an unavoidable part of any manufacturing industry. Although the ideal solution would be to upgrade systems prior to the equipment becoming obsolete, this is not always logistically possible or cost-effective. Having a mitigation plan to handle the support of older equipment is a must. Whether that includes a calculated stockpile of spare parts, assembling a team of specialists to support a complex system or making the decision to upgrade prior to obsolescence depends on a number of factors. An experienced integrator who has a proven track record of supporting older systems can often be a handy guide through this common but complicated issue.