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Legacy control systems: keep the piranhas from biting at your heels

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MANY engineers live by the maxim: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. This outlook leads to manufacturers finding themselves burdened with legacy control systems.

These may jeopardise business profitability as your more forward-thinking competitors, with more efficient and up-to-date systems, improve productivity and quality while reducing waste. But just because you’ve fallen behind doesn’t mean you can’t regain your edge. Start by assessing your answers to the following questions:

Do I have a legacy control system?

Answer the following 10 questions to see how your control system rates. (Score 1 for every “yes”):

1. Is your control system more than five years old?

2. Does your control system software run on unsupported operating systems (Win 95/98, WinNT, etc.)?

3. Is the future for the control system software uncertain (e.g. little/no investment in new releases or vendor has multiple products to maintain)?

4. Does the upgrade to the latest version incur significant reconfiguration (>10 percent of the original configuration)?

5. Is it difficult to find system integrators to help enhance or maintain the version you have?

6. Has the product support on your version already run out, or is it about to?

7. Is the year to year support cost increasing (i.e. Is it more expensive to maintain)?

8. Was the last update for your software available more than 12 months ago?

9. Is your control system at threat of attacks from viruses?

10. Do you have problems integrating your control system to all your business systems?

If you scored:

Act immediately to replace your systems – they may be causing you long term damage as your competitors move ahead of you.

Open a dialogue with your vendor about upgrade options, but don’t wait too long.

Your control system is performing adequately and there is no need for alarm since your vendor probably has solutions to any problems you may have.

Your control system is in good order.

What are my options?

WHEN moving away from your legacy control system, you first need to weigh up the cost in new software, time and effort against loss of competitiveness.

Doing nothing will cost nothing upfront, but will cost you in lost business. Doing something costs something, but can build for your long term competitiveness by giving you access to latest technologies e.g. Windows XP, Web Clients, mobile offerings, latest standards.

Your options are:

1. Do nothing: Costs are going to keep increasing and you will become less and less competitive.

2. Seamless upgrade from existing vendor: Maintaining an up-to-date control system ensures it doesn’t become a legacy system that (a) is expensive to maintain and (b) also has ceased to provide business benefits. In a recent survey of Citect users, over 80 percent had upgraded to the latest release within two years, while almost 50 percent upgraded as soon as a new release became available. Such decisions are easier to make when a control system vendor provides a seamless upgrade path to their latest product release.

3. Rip and replace: This can be an expensive option. For a typical HMI/SCADA system, the software cost is only a fraction of the overall cost of a new system as it can take months to develop a new configuration. This option becomes cost effective when the control system vendor has not provided a clear or simple, supported upgrade path.

However, the technology is now available through Switch2Citect. Switch2Citect automatically converts your configuration to a new system rather than rebuild it from scratch, reducing the time and costs of developing a new configuration by up to 80 percent.

Weighing up cost-effectiveness

SOME of the traditional SCADA vendors have been purchased by their competitors - the problem here is which one will get the investment.

When a vendor owns multiple competing products, they have to make a choice about which one is preferred and gets the majority of the investment. So while they may look like an option today, they may not have a future.

Whichever option you choose, make sure you keep up to date and keep the piranhas from biting at your heels.

* Commentary by Stephen Flannigan, general manager, SCADA, Citect

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