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Challenges in Brownfield Automation Upgrade Projects

A facility’s control systems are typically designed to keep the facility running for at least a couple of decades. This is because these systems control critical plant processes, and their reliability and availability are among key metrics that define the facility’s productivity. This performance guarantee from control systems comes at a steep cost, which makes it harder to replace and upgrade these systems too frequently. However, when the need for upgrade does arise, it typically comes about when:

  1. The control system can no longer keep up with the facility’s size and scope; thus, an upgrade accommodates the expansion of facilities.
  2. There are major performance limitations with the existing control systems, which cause frequent outages and bottlenecks at the facility.
  3. There is a greater paradigm shift in the market and the facility needs changes to adapt, e.g. switching to newer machinery and assets, gathering more data for analytics and optimization, which requires newer control systems.
  4. Regulatory and statuary requirements sometimes make it necessary to upgrade non-compliant older systems.
  5. System obsolescence, parts unavailability, and increasing maintenance costs make it harder to support control systems.
  6. Newly discovered system vulnerabilities and safety requirements make it necessary to upgrade older control systems.

These can be accompanied by smaller factors like energy efficiency, quality control, and cybersecurity enhancements. Often many of these factors are compounded, making the need to upgrade even more pressing.

But while the justification to upgrade may present itself wholly, the means to go about such an upgrade are much more obscure, and often a can of worms no team wants to open. This article explores these challenges and potential mitigation strategies to overcome them.

Challenge: Narrow shutdown windows

The output from running facilities is critical to business sustainability and delays or interruptions to running operations can result in upwards of millions of dollars in production losses. Due to this, facilities are scheduled for shutdowns at specific times and all major maintenance and upgrade activities need to be done within that time. Control system upgrades need to fit into these shutdown windows as well. It becomes challenging when there isn’t enough planning and coordination to get everything done in time.

This challenge can be tackled through a detailed governance framework and elaborate project management practices, which ensure that there are comprehensive plans, targets, mitigation strategies, and contingencies in place for all project stakeholders involved. A comprehensive detail of this process is going to be covered in a future article on brownfield project governance.

Challenge: Incomplete documentation

Facilities undergo a variety of changes over their lifetimes. These include expansions, addition of assets, removal of obsolete parts, technological upgrades, and product improvements to name a few. Many of these changes are made ad-hoc and may not be fully documented or recorded. This can lead to difficulty in accurately designing system upgrades when there is insufficient documentation to show the actual workings of the facility at its current stage.

A comprehensive facility survey and study preceding the upgrade activity is a mandatory step here. This is then followed by a review documentation and reverse engineering of existing processes and systems to complete the facility documentation and have a detailed picture of systems, assets, and processes that will be a part of the upgrade.

Challenge: Integration complexity

Facilities often have multiple systems working in parallel. At the simplest level, a standard safety practice is to have control and safety systems on different vendor platforms to reduce the likelihood of common failures. These systems are then further connected to secondary and tertiary OT systems and applications like historians, power management, alarm management, PIMS, asset management, leak detection, balance of plant etc. Integrating all these systems and applications into the newer upgraded control system is a challenging task that requires significant command over the workings and functionality of these systems.

A helpful solution here is to work with integrators and partners who have demonstrable expertise over the different systems deployed and can work closely with the facility teams to integrate and troubleshoot these systems effectively during the upgrade. In the absence of such expertise, the more costly method is to acquire different experts from different vendors who can handle their own systems’ integration.

Challenge: System Migrations

An extension of the integration challenge is also the migration of logic, data, analytics, HMI screens, and applications from older control systems to newer ones. These migrations scale in complexity proportionately with system sizes. A key concern here is the availability of personnel who have expertise on legacy systems to help with the migration, which is worsened by the retirement of such people in recent years. It also doesn’t help that newer applications use newer data and storage systems, which often requires converting and transforming older data types and structures into forms that are compatible with newer systems.

As with addressing integration complexity, system migrations can be managed in a similar fashion. Domain experts with multi-disciplinary and multi-system training can have higher productivity in migrating systems and ensuring their functionality. Integrators with effective knowledge transfer and training tools at their disposal will have better results with system migration and can contribute significantly to ensure the migration is completed within plant shutdown windows.

Challenge: Adoption and training

A less focused factor in system upgrade and post-upgrade challenges is the facility team’s willingness and enthusiasm to learn how to work with the newer systems. Resistance to change is a consistent human phenomenon and the plant environment is no different, as it is dependent on the facility personnel for its operation and maintenance. Some major factors that hinder system adoption at a personnel level include personnel not being made a part of the upgrade decision, inefficient training methods, and insufficient training resources.

One way to overcome these challenges is to ensure that the facility team is a consistent part of the upgrade process and their opinions on upgrade decisions are considered. It is them who will ultimately be working at the upgraded facility and their involvement gives them a sense of ownership of the upgrade activity and its aftermath. Additionally, integrators who have demonstrable experience on the deployed systems and have detailed training programs in place can be of significant help to getting facility teams adapted to the newer systems.

Challenge: Material & Logistics

Even 4 years after the COVID pandemic hit the global economy, there are still aftereffects of its impact in the form of higher transport prices, fewer available logistics channels, and limited supply of material. Geopolitical situation and economics slowdowns have not helped this situation. Technology trade restrictions due to sanctions and government policies have made it harder for the newest technologies to be developed and shipped across borders without going through intensive paperwork and reviews. All this has affected the availability of newer control systems as well.

The best possible workaround for this now is to size systems early into a project’s start and design them based on accurate predictions for new system specifications. This is followed by ordering long-lead items well ahead of time. Minor changes can be adjusted into system designs, while trying to avoid major revisions. What makes this part complicated is the thorough planning and forecasting of large brownfield projects, which can be disassembled if any of the cogs aren’t fixed in place. So, a robust project management framework and tools and processes to ensure its success are mandatory parts of such projects.

Conclusion

Brownfield upgrades are a daunting but necessary task, and every facility must inevitably go through them. But with the right partners and right approach, it can be a rewarding experience that opens doorways to newer possibilities for the facility’s future.

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