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Obsolescence is no defense

As with all technology, industrial automation products eventually become obsolete. However, with careful planning and proper maintenance, end-users can continue to realize a return from their automation investments for years, even decades. Here are 10 tips from system integrators who know how to run on a budget.

1. Stockpile spare parts

Within the first few years of operation it should become obvious which parts of the automation system fail most often. Buy plenty of spares, especially if the vendor has already introduced new versions that are not backwards compatible.

2. Choose reliable vendors

Many automation products have become commodities with very similar features. If all else is equal, buy from the vendor that supports legacy systems.

3. Learn from history

Remember the effort and rework required for past upgrades, especially the installation of new software versions. Stick with system integrators that have proven to be reliable on such projects and with vendors that have provided pain-free migration.

4. Start with the best

Avoid buying products that are already approaching obsolescence. Life cycles vary, but any technology on the market for over 10 years is likely to be supplanted in the near future.

5. Plan ahead, but not forever

Consider the expected life span of the process being automated. If it is unlikely to be operational for more than a few years, there's no need to invest in an automation system that will outlive it.

6. If it ain't broke don't fix it

Upgrade to the new version only if it fixes an existing problem or provides a must-have feature. [Be aware of the date after which your vendor no longer will support or upgrade your version.]

7. Standardize

Choose open-industry standards or proven technology that is sufficiently widespread to be the de facto standard—such as IEC 61131-3 programming tools, Ethernet communications, Microsoft Windows operating systems. Limit brands; use off-the-shelf components.

8. Modularize

Simplify parts replacement by designing both the hardware and the software as collections of functionally independent modules, connected with well-documented interfaces.

9. Get an outside perspective

End-users are often unaware that some of their equipment is no longer repairable or replaceable. Have a third party assess the existing system's exposure to obsolescence and document the risk areas. Don't wait until a program crashes or a part fails.

10. Consider alternative sources

Don't give up on an existing automation system just because it's old. Even after key components have become extinct, many automation systems can be maintained thanks to e-Bay and third parties specializing in replacing, repairing, and stockpiling obsolete hardware.

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