Don’t Let Obsolescence Get You Down

Remember floppy disks? They are a classic example of a product being rendered obsolete due to more modern alternatives. The same issue occurs in processing plant legacy equipment. However, it’s often not as simple as upgrading to a shiny new USB.

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Obsolescence management has never been so important. In the ongoing fight to keep up with competition from Asia, manufacturers across the United States are looking for ways to increase efficiency and cost-effectiveness, without breaking the bank. This has led to a reliance on legacy and obsolete systems.

It is impossible to stop parts from becoming obsolete, but it is possible to mitigate the risks to production when obsolescence does inevitably occur. At the time when legacy parts need replacing, important decisions need to be made—should a replacement for the part be sourced, or should the entire system be written off?

This decision will have a huge impact on the businesses bottom line, therefore the decision should be planned in advanced. Consider this as an example. A Human Machine Interface (HMI) panel is your facility has broken down. Unfortunately, it is a discontinued model, so you cannot source an exact replacement from the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM). However, you are now struggling to find a new model that will integrate with your other hardware.

Some manufacturers might deem it necessary to write off the entire system when a part breaks down, simply because they don't believe they can find the same model or equivalent. Rather than embarking on a costly overhaul, you should have a replacement plan in place.

The Replacement

Although choosing to upgrade to a newer, but undoubtedly more expensive piece of equipment might seem like the easy option, the benefits of sourcing obsolete spares might surprise you. What’s more, you will quickly find that, fortunately, obsolete does not mean a part is unattainable.

In fact, there are a number of options available to get your hands on an obsolete part. This includes using existing stock, Last Time Buy (LTB) options, sourcing from an aftermarket supply, finding an alternate replacement from the same or a different manufacturer or finding the nearest equivalent substitute part.

Priorities

Depending on the process, plant managers will have different system priorities. While those using batch manufacturing have the luxury of regularly stopping production to do maintenance work, those with continuous processes do not. This means chemical or food manufacturers using continuous production methods need to choose the most reliable system—as it will have to run until the next annual shutdown.

For some, this could mean a legacy system that their maintenance engineers know inside out is the best option. For others, it could mean that the latest generation of intelligent automation equipment is ideal. This really is down to each individual facility and company policy. Regardless of the process type, the ability to identify secondary sources and spare parts in advance is vital.

Another variation of prioritises can depend on the size of the company involved. Large businesses may choose to hire an obsolescence manager, employ the services of a third-party specialist, purchasing a computerised asset management system, or on a much smaller scale, simply use spreadsheets to keep records of product lifecycles.

Whatever the method, obsolescence management comes down to assessing current systems and supply resources, conducting risk analysis on all parts and securing access to obsolete spares. An integral part of this process is to forge relationships with reliable automation spares suppliers. After all, knowing who to call when a part breaks down could be the difference between a day of downtime, or a week.

It is also crucial to know the lead times for the supply of such replacements. For example, if it takes one month to receive and install the replacement part, plant managers need to be thinking one month ahead.

Conclusion

There is a time and place for obsolete spares in processing. While the truth remains that in-depth planning and system understanding is essential for any plant manager undertaking obsolescence management, it is also true that help is at hand when sourcing replacements rapidly.

By working with an obsolete industrial parts supplier that knows the industry in depth and can source all the necessary parts, manufacturers can take a load off their mind while maintaining stride with the competition. While floppy disks may be a thing of the past, legacy equipment doesn't need to be.

Jonathan Wilkins is marketing director at EU Automation.

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