With all of the new automation and data collection technologies emerging today, its hard to know what will be a good, long-term investment and what will become obsolete and inevitably need to be replaced. Because budgets are a little bit tighter than they once were, there is more thought going into how to best spend the money your company has to invest in technology.

In many cases, the risks posed by continuing to use obsolete technologies outweigh the costs of replace equipment. However, this becomes much more difficult to do if there is no plan in place for how to manage the operation of these end-of-life aged technologies.

  • Supply chain fragility. A number of control systems that were designed and launched in the 1970’s and 1980’s are still in use today. Technology shifts, diminishing demand, and economic impacts have made some vital components and subassemblies used in these systems hard to come by. Some are in short supply and others are completely extinct.
  • Support challenges. Difficulties locating legacy products can be further compounded by maintenance challenges. Not only is maintenance expensive, but attrition among subject matter experts brings an added layer of complexity.
  • Regulatory restrictions. Safety regulations and rules regarding hazardous substances (e.g. the Restriction of Hazardous Substances directive) have expanded significantly in recent years, leaving many older products at risk for compliance.

Because budgets aren’t as ample as they used to be, there are a few simple ways to mitigate the issues that come along with aging and obsolescence:

Conducting consistent preventive maintenance

As equipment reaches the end of its useful life, age and wear take their toll. Failure rates drastically increase, as do maintenance costs. Plants are perpetually one major part break or machine failure away from a shut down, and legacy equipment is more susceptible to these sorts of hiccups. As a result, preventive maintenance becomes absolutely essential.

To drive consistent preventive maintenance of discontinued products, maintenance engineers need to be constantly asking questions, such as:

  • Are the filters replaced regularly?
  • Is the current operating environment within OEM specifications?
  • Are cooling fans operational and clear of obstruction?
  • Does the equipment possess the latest firmware update?
  • Is there an updated logbook documenting inspections of obsolete equipment?
  • When is the last time grounding was checked?

Training to support legacy equipment

Preventive maintenance activities will only be productive if performed by personnel with the know-how to handle the machines they are maintaining. It’s not uncommon for a production facility to be running equipment that’s more than 20 years old, and most of the people that designed and installed it have moved on from the department or organization.  Oftentimes, these experts have been replaced by younger engineers who simply can’t be expected to hold the same level of knowledge on legacy equipment.

Developing a training program to address these gaps is critical, but 58 percent of companies have faced difficulties in training young engineers and technicians to operate and maintain older control systems, according to a survey conducted by the ARC Advisory Group. Effectively training staff to maintain legacy products can be even more challenging because it requires a great breadth of knowledge. Employees need to know how to maintain all legacy products – this includes installation, configuration, programming, maintenance, diagnosis, troubleshooting and repair.

Planning for spare replacement and legacy repair support

A spare part-replacement strategy should involve more than just stockpiling parts, it involves a process of:

  • Calculating the optimal amount of spare parts
  • Determining the condition and supply of the spares
  • Identifying spares of legacy equipment
  • Identifying a trustworthy and timely supplier of legacy spares

Because of the complexity that can be involved in effectively managing spares for legacy equipment, companies sometimes choose to leverage a third-party to manage the process. Parts management programs can help reduce inventory and carrying costs, and can help provide more immediate spare parts availability.

Managing Obsolescence Status

Within a year or two of conducting a comprehensive audit of the installed base, production facilities often start to discover products that were once active have become discontinued. If risk isn’t being continually assessed, it’s much more likely status changes and threats associated with them will be missed.

To prevent this, companies need to establish a process for monitoring lifecycle stages of equipment. This should include developing a database and assigning subject matter experts within the organization to collect and maintain all lifecycle information. Vendors also can help provide additional information around lifecycle statuses, parts and service availability, and migration recommendations that align with business goals.

These steps are not all-inclusive, but they are a great place to start to make sure that you and your manufacturing process don’t get taken by surprise when a machine at the end of it’s useful life begins having problems.

To read more on mitigating obsolescence and creating and obsolescence plan, read the article at mbtmag.com.