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Continuing the Automation Legacy

Continuing the Automation Legacy

Continuing the Automation Legacy

John Young, APAC director EU Automation, discusses the benefits of bringing legacy control systems into the fourth industrial revolution.

The cyclopic is an electric, foldable bike that’s set to be the most compact on the market. The invention takes inspiration from the Penny Farthing. Its handles are fixed upon the larger front wheel, and the back wheel folds inwards so the bike can fit into a portable bag that rolls along. The cyclopic is designed to offer users with a space-saving, lightweight solution to city travel. 

While manufacturers don’t use equipment that has been around as long as the original penny farthing, most facilities do still rely on older equipment in their production lines. As the first generation of factory automation comes to an end, the future of many control systems may seem bleak. In fact, a 2019 survey carried out by Dell Technologies found that 91 per cent of midsize and larger organisations face major hurdles to digital transformation. The notion that these organisations should scrap all their legacy systems in favour of new infrastructure is impractical. Instead, manufacturers should consider how their existing equipment can connect to the Internet of Things (IoT).

Out with the Old?

“The programmable controller’s time was right. It invented itself because there was a need for it, and other people had that same need.” Those are the words of Dick Morley, the father of the programmable logic controller (PLC) as he reflected on his invention, 40 years later. When the PLC was invented in the late 1960s, it was built to give manufacturers better insight into their plant’s processes. This need hasn’t changed very much in subsequent years. Real-time machine control is still a necessity, but the adoption of new technologies means that older PLCs may be lagging behind.

So, are these legacy systems destined for the scrap heap? Not necessarily, they just need to be able to monitor more processes. If we consider the monitoring needs of a variety of industries, it is clear that each one has its own set of requirements. A water utility may be required to monitor the health of its phonelines to make sure they’re working in case of an emergency; while a packaging facility that uses injection moulding may need to retrieve data on the speed of its machines. 

While control systems such as the PLC won’t be made redundant any time soon, their functions and capabilities will need to extend in order to manage these increased data requirements. 

Smarten Up

Manufacturers may need some support to take their control systems into the future. Modern PLCs often come with an Ethernet interface, which older or less expensive systems do not have. Instead, many legacy systems adopt a sometimes-bewildering range of serial communications and proprietary protocols that lack the interoperability most manufacturers require. 

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