How Legacy Equipment & Emerging Technology Can Work Together

Louise Smyth

New technologies relating to artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, augmented reality and 3D printing are emerging rapidly. Design engineers are faced with an alarming number of options. The ultimate dream for many design engineers 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.

Jonathan Wilkins explains the – surprisingly positive – relationship between legacy equipment and emerging technology

For smaller engineering businesses, closing the gap between emerging technology and their existing equipment is a challenge many are faced with. We are still at an early stage in the fourth industrial revolution and many companies lack both the staff and the technological infrastructure required to fully transform their operations. 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.

Industrial equipment is built to last, which means that design engineers and manufacturers are often operating machines that are 20 to 30 years old. Many are therefore operating legacy drives, sensors, PLCs and other automation equipment.

If It’s Not Broken Don’t Fix It?

If the legacy equipment is running well and causing no problems, you may think, what’s the issue? The difficulty comes when design engineers 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 design engineers’ Industry 4.0 aspirations. For example, it may communicate via proprietary protocols that use RS-232/422/485 serial cables, that although fit for purpose, are not suited to remote monitoring across a TCP/IP network.

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, design engineers need to create an ecosystem where emerging technology and legacy machines can work in perfect harmony.

Bringing In New Technology

The first approach for design engineers trying to align emerging technology with legacy equipment is ‘rip and replace’. That is, deciding that, much 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.

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

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. These devices will make communication between legacy and current protocols easy. Retrofitting can also mean adding sensors to measure vibration, temperature or other parameters that indicate how equipment is performing and communicating the information via the IoT. Using protocol converters to ensure equipment from different vendors can speak the same language means data collection and analysis can be pooled with that of emerging technologies.

The best approach for design engineers is to create a roadmap of their current digital maturity and where they aim to be, setting targets and prioritising the actions that will bring the most business value. It may be necessary to upgrade some equipment, but this is a far sight from scrapping the entire factory and starting again. By adding IoT connectivity to legacy equipment, design engineers can relax in the knowledge that it can communicate with new technology.

Jonathan Wilkins is with EU Automation


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