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Obsolescence – understand your risk level

15 June 2009

When it comes to obsolete machinery and control systems that can't be supported, manufacturers must be aware of their exposure to risk, warns Mike Aldridge of Siemens Industry Automation & Drive Technologies

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Many manufacturers and producers will have obsolete machinery and control systems on site often 20 years old or more which mechanically, may still be in good working order, but presents a number of significant risks to their business.

Firstly, the machinery and control systems will most probably lack sophisticated diagnostics. This means they may not be as efficient as other machinery on site which can provide regular updates on the level of maintenance required. Without this the overall availability of the plant, finished product quality and output cannot be accurately assessed or guaranteed.

Secondly, the age of the machinery and control systems means there may not be the technical back up or spare parts from either the original manufacturer or service support companies to maintain acceptable productivity levels.

Manufacturers need to fully understand the level of risk related to their old and obsolete machinery and clearly identify any ‘weak’ points on the site. An in-depth site audit is one method of finding out this information.

Designed to assess the reliability/maintainability, efficiency and productivity of all machinery on site, the audit will also investigate any potential risks associated with the availability of critical spares and the ongoing effectiveness, quality and safety of both the internal, and if employed, outsourced maintenance operations.

Such audits highlight which areas need enhancing, strengthening or re-engineering so as to become more reliable, efficient and productive or even to become future proof. The overall impact is improved product quality, improved safety and a significant reduction in expensive downtime. All factors which contribute directly to greater business success.

Effective audits must also be able to identify external risk factors. For example, it is vital that the strength and reliability of the supplier network is analysed. If a piece of machinery or control system can only be maintained by an external company, then it is vital for a manufacturer to know they can rely on them. In the current climate, a clear understanding of any solvency issues amongst support partners for the machinery or process is essential. As an outcome, it may be necessary to build an internal support network for a machine or process to counteract any potential problems caused by this.

Following the audit, any machinery, control systems or processes which are deemed to be unsupportable or at risk would be identified and an action plan implemented. Such a plan might include the training of operators and internal maintenance staff so they would be better able to respond effectively in the event of downtime and also maintain machinery more effectively. The availability, locations and status of key critical spares would also be a key outcome of such an audit.

The plan would require a level of investment, so it is important for manufacturers and producers to take a long term view, even in the current economic climate. This is easier said than done when staff are busy maintaining machinery and responding to downtime incidents. However, it is crucial that time is taken to consider the real costs to the business or indeed the future viability of the business of not making improvements and enhancements to obsolete machinery.

Another output from the audit which could add further value to business performance is for example, standardisation. Standardisation of a plant can bring about substantial efficiency savings through reduced spares holding, staff/operator training budgets, use of diagnostic maintenance data and by removing the complexities faced by staff working from various systems and interfaces.

By utilising the latest automation technological advances in line with a plant standardisation strategy, manufacturers will not only boost efficiency and productivity but will also reduce the whole lifecycle cost of a site providing cost savings in the longer term.

In these current challenging economic times, it is more important than ever for manufacturers and producers to work with their Machine and Control System suppliers to address and minimise any unnecessary potential risks from their site and business. This will not only ensure they are best-placed to survive the recession, but to emerge the other side with a reliable external network and a more efficient and productive plant that is fully supportable by skilled staff, ready for growth.

For any further product information or literature requests please contact 0845 7705070 /

* Mike Aldridge is Head of Motion Control Service for Siemens Industry Automation & Drive Technologies

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