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Can Legacy Equipment Join the IIoT Party?

Sensors, robots and human machine interfaces (HMIs) are the obvious pieces of hardware related to digitalization in manufacturing, but what about the legacy equipment already in the facility?

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Jonathan WilkinsJonathan Wilkins

Guestlists to a party are often exclusive, selective and considered. But, what about the guestlist to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) party? Sensors, robots and human machine interfaces (HMIs) are the obvious pieces of hardware related to digitalization in manufacturing, but what about the legacy equipment already in the facility? Should old parts be kicked out and replaced with newer models? We don’t think so.

Legacy equipment is the backbone of United States manufacturing. Embarking on the ‘rip-and-replace’ approach of overhauling entire systems is simply not cost effective. Rather than splashing out on brand new hardware, the money saved by keeping existing equipment can be spent on improved maintenance and the integration of this new technology such as retrofitted sensors and advanced automation.

However, there’s a delicate payoff between economic sustainability and remaining competitive. Completely ridding factories of old systems for modern alternatives may seem idyllic, but this would be far too costly and unfeasible for most businesses in the US. Additionally, when you consider the huge amount of time required to source new parts and uninstall existing equipment, the time investment alone is enough to put businesses off this approach.

So, what role does legacy equipment play in the IIoT era of Industry 4.0? It’s simple. These older parts are the backbone of the factory and can be used to join a complete IIoT ecosystem which is integrated with legacy assets.

When it comes to building this mixed ecosystem, however, it’s not the age of existing equipment that is the problem, but the skills of workers. With those that initially installed this legacy equipment retiring, the industry is left with younger workers dealing with the challenge of combining new and old, unfamiliar technology.

Thankfully, much of this new technology enables more intelligent analysis of parts maintenance. Therefore, it could be argued the need for legacy part experts is much less than it once was. 

Integrating older parts with IIoT is achieved by using retrofit, or ‘wrap-and-extend’ solutions. Using third-party and IoT-ready products such as IoT gateways, OPC servers and sensors to bridge the gap, this out-of-the-box connectivity can be installed with no interruption to uptime—which is often a huge concern for large volume factories.

This approach can be entirely tailored to the business’s needs, meaning only useful sensors are put in place. Compare this with buying brand new equipment, which would include hundreds of inbuilt sensors that aren’t all relevant to the factory’s end goal, and this wrap-and-extend approach is much more suitable.

These retrofit sensors can track parameters such as temperature and vibration to provide valuable insight with the help of software, into the current condition and the future condition of a part.

For example, a higher temperature could provide engineers with an advanced warning of lubrication breakdown. Similarly, by monitoring the vibration spectrum for change, it is possible to discover and monitor signs of wear by comparing to baseline values. A trained vibration analyst can detect the presence of a bearing defect, a broken impeller blade, and much more.

By sending this data to the cloud, it can join the other IIoT data generated by the internal sensors of new machines. Software can then parse this collection of data, with little discrimination regarding whether this data came from a new or old part.

Most factories will take a phased approach to implementing this third-party technology. We’ll see businesses reap the benefits of tackling problematic legacy equipment first, and with this success, retrofit condition monitoring programs can then be rolled out to other legacy equipment progressively over time.

After tackling the troubled assets, high-value, critical and hard-to-reach legacy assets can then benefit from retrofit condition monitoring too.

Many legacy machines have been built to last, and this is definitely a positive. It’s great that businesses have the option to keep this equipment around, rather than be forced to pay for costly rip and replace schemes to overhaul run down systems.

New technology means the lifespan of this legacy equipment can be elongated even further through preventative maintenance schedules. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a better attendant to the IIoT party.

Jonathan Wilkins is marketing director of obsolete parts supplier EU Automation.

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