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Can emerging technology and legacy equipment go well together?

New technologies relating to AI, robotics, augmented reality and 3D printing are emerging rapidly. Manufacturers are faced with an alarming number of options, all promising to help them move closer to a smart, Industry 4.0 equipped factory. The ultimate dream for many manufacturers is full digitisation, both vertically and horizontally. That is, connecting all functions across a company as well as its suppliers and distributors in the supply chain.

For smaller manufacturing businesses, closing the gap between emerging technology and their existing equipment is a challenge many are faced with.

Digitalisation often requires substantial change in an organisation’s culture and technology. However, this change in technology does not have to be a complete overhaul or a sparkly new factory.

 

Spanning The Generations

Industrial equipment is built to last, which means that manufacturers are often operating machines that are 20 to 30 years old. Many manufacturers are therefore operating legacy drives, sensors, programmable logic controllers and other automation equipment. This equipment often forms the fundamental backbone of operations and is vital to business success.

If the legacy equipment is running well and causing no problems, you may think, what’s the issue?

The difficulty comes when manufacturers want to update their equipment so that it communicates with other machines. Equipment built 20 years ago was not built to communicate and can therefore hold back manufacturers’ Industry 4.0 aspirations. Any new equipment, which will be built to last until 2050, must operate happily alongside machines introduced in the 1980s.

Generally, newer machines will come equipped with means to communicate with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), but because the backbone of the factory doesn’t, manufacturers need to create an ecosystem where emerging technology and legacy machines can work in perfect harmony.

 

Rip And Replace

The first approach for manufacturers trying to align emerging technology with legacy equipment is rip and replace. That is, deciding that like electricity and water, the two just simply don’t go together and the best option is to start from scratch and commission an entirely new system.

While the idea of a brand-new Industry 4.0 ready factory might sound attractive, there is one obvious barrier — cost. While the benefits of perfect interoperability, high efficiency and synchronisation with augmented reality and other emerging technologies are certainly a pull, it is expensive to design and build a new line. When you consider the time taken to source the equipment, uninstall your legacy equipment, install the new machines and re-train employees, the cost spirals further.

 

Wrap And Extend

The other approach is to wrap and extend, also known as retrofit, incorporating IIoT connectivity devices, such as OPC servers, IoT platforms and IoT Gateways to add additional capabilities to the legacy machine…

Article and image by EU AUTOMATION.

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