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Connecting the old with the new

09 August 2022

While we would all love to have a 100% modernised factory, in reality it is still common to have decades-old equipment doing its part on the production line. Adnan Khan explores how new and old equipment can work together seamlessly when industrial PCs (IPCs) come into the picture

IN 2021, the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) released its World Robot Report reporting the UK as the only G7 country to have a robot density below the world average. Whereas nearby countries, like Germany and Sweden, ranked in the top five automated countries. This difference in automation could be attributed to the UK's reliance on older systems, especially in manufacturing.

According to Intoware’s independent survey of 1030 UK-based industrial firms, 74% of manufacturing and engineering companies are still relying on legacy systems post-pandemic. This high percentile can be explained by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses, meaning they believe they cannot afford to invest in digitalising premises, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

While this can make digitalising factories slightly more challenging, it is still easily achievable. Despite those who would say new and old technology cannot be blended, like day and night, these two opposites can work together harmoniously by retrofitting a few key components.

Rip and replace

New machines are equipped to communicate with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), so the quickest way of achieving a smart factory is to install an entirely new system, the rip-and-replace approach. This has obvious benefits, in terms of systems communications, high efficiency and synchronisation with emerging technologies.

However, there are many disadvantages to this approach, such as initial cost, retraining and downtime required to replace the equipment. Manufacturers who do not have the disposable capital for new equipment should seek to incorporate connectivity into their legacy equipment, joining new technologies and older machines to create a seamlessly working system. This can be achieved with retrofitting.

Old dog,new tricks

Technology such as sensors and IPCs are being constantly updated, making it impossible for most factories to have a 100% state-of-the-art facility. It is not uncommon for manufacturers to use equipment that is two decades old as part of the production line.

However, this legacy equipment could be costing companies due to the lack of data connection. The culture of uninformed decision-making persists despite the progress made in technology, with 26% of workers reported to have made decisions based on gut instinct during their career and 21% reporting doing this monthly. This guesswork in business can be attributed to a lack of data to inform the decision process. Therefore, manufacturers should seek to modernise their factories for easy data acquisition.

To modernise factories, legacy models can either be replaced, a costly and wasteful process, or augmented through retrofitting. Retrofitting refers to adding IIoT connectivity capabilities to existing machines, such as legacy equipment, so they can be monitored and controlled remotely. The easiest way to do this is by adding sensors for data acquisition, or investing in accelerometers and thermocouples to measure vibration, temperature, current and power consumption. These sensors collect data to indicate equipment’s performance.

For example, a thermocouple can measure the temperature of equipment processes. A temperature change would signal a problem in the equipment to the PLCs and in turn IPCs. This information can be communicated to a maintenance engineer who will be able to identify the issue and schedule the necessary repairs before the machine breaks, causing unexpected and costly downtime.

Retrofitting legacy equipment to support connection to IPCs allows companies to save money on expensive new equipment while boosting productivity, limiting downtime and waste components. Data collected by sensors can help identify when components need to be replaced or identify possible production slowdowns.

Benefiting from connection

Data collection and analysis are important to any business, even in factories. Using IIoT devices to connect equipment to IPCs allows for the support of easy data acquisition that can, in turn, help companies improve operational efficiency, and reduce energy consumption, projected costs and human errors in the factory.

For example, a 2019 case study by Felipe Orellana and Romina Torres proved that retrofitting legacy equipment with IIoT devices could successfully create an efficient smart factory. In the study, legacy equipment in a spare parts manufacturing factory was fitted with a variety of sensors connected to IPCs. This resulted in not only an improvement in operation efficiency, dependent on the percentage of digitalisation, but also a reduced energy consumption by 17%, reduced projected costs by three per cent and cut the percentage of human errors in the factory by 70%.

This study shows that companies can avoid the hefty cost of constantly updating equipment while still maintaining a competitive edge. Moreover, this retrofitting process is a continuous improvement that allows employees to become more familiar with digital technologies without throwing them into the deep end with new high-tech equipment, meaning they can see improvements to their tasks a lot clearer.

Retrofitting has benefits outside of those mentioned in the study, the method is also more environmentally friendly. Traditional manufacturing has a linear economy based on the make-use-dispose model. However, nowadays companies are looking to be more environmentally conscious. Retrofitting is in line with this goal, with its reuse-remake-recover model.

Until the latest industrial technology comes free of charge, legacy equipment’s use in the industry is inevitable. However, studies like Orellana and Torres and the large range of sensors that can be retrofitted, prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Modernisation is achievable even in decades-old equipment, in businesses of all sizes, and is necessary for companies to maintain a competitive edge.

Adnan Khan, business development manager at Beckhoff UK


Key Points

  • To modernise factories, legacy models can either be replaced, or augmented through retrofitting
  • Manufacturers who do not have the disposable capital for new equipment can incorporate connectivity into legacy equipment
  • Retrofitting legacy equipment to support connection to IPCs allows companies to save money on expensive new equipment