Managing obsolescence02 July 2024

ABB’s Smart Sensor provides accurate, real-time data that allows plants to plan for potential failures

How can plants plan for and tackle obsolescence more efficiently? Louise Davis gets some expert insight on managing this inevitable threat that faces industrial operators and plant engineers all over the world

The rapid pace of digital transformation affecting almost all industries is both shaping and helping to reduce incidences of obsolescence. New digital management tools enable plant managers to be more proactive and incorporate obsolescence management into predictive maintenance strategies, helping flag potential obsolescence events earlier.

Parallel to this progress is the modern operational environment, where ‘leaner’, just-in-time methodologies mean that unplanned downtime in any live engineering environment – whether caused by obsolescence or anything else – is simply unacceptable. Digital tools also step up here: long gone are the days where sourcing spare parts meant pausing operations to call around various suppliers. Several companies have sprung up to effectively act as agents in the ongoing battle to replace and repair parts, which often remains the most cost-efficient approach. The alternative being to invest in new equipment plus all the staff training and disruption that involves.


A prime example of a new breed of solutions provider that’s tackling issues of obsolescence is UK-based Like Technologies, which specialises in supporting electronic engineering and computer-based systems across a range of critical industries, notably power generation. “The nuclear plants we work with were built in the 1970s and 1980s, so obsolescence is something that must be managed daily,” explains Like Technologies’ managing director, Kate Houlden. “Many of the companies that were involved in the initial design and build do not exist anymore, or no longer manufacture or service what’s in there. Like Technologies was founded as a response to the need for obsolescence management solutions in the nuclear industry.”

Houlden reports that her team witness obsolescence first-hand: “One example would be the Babcock Bristol Limited (BBL) Series 4 project we worked on,” she recalls. “Our customer required evaluation, assessment and refurbishment of a range of analogue control modules at two different sites, as part of a larger plant life extension strategy programme. The equipment dated from the 1980s, comprising a range of rack-mounted analogue electronic function and signal conditioning modules in a range of configurations, with accompanying power supplies and operator interfaces. The original equipment manufacturer (OEM), BBL, no longer manufactures or provides support for these devices. Therefore, ageing and obsolescence is a risk to the associated systems’ ability to continue to operate reliably.” So, how did Like Technologies assist? “We conducted a comprehensive ageing and obsolescence evaluation, design review, test procedure generation and refurbishment of BBL Series 4 modules across our customer’s sites. A full refurbishment and delivery plan for 372 modules was developed with our recommendations for long-term maintenance, support and storage,” details Houlden.

When asked what advice she would give to plant managers tasked with planning for and tackling obsolescence, Houlden points out that addressing obsolescence is too often carried out in a reactive manner, which causes a host of negative knock-on effects. “Early identification of issues allows a much wider range of resolutions and reduces downtime,” she states. “It’s important to consider the lifespan of all components of complex systems and create a plan to deal with obsolete parts as they age. One of our clients inherited a system and our long-term partnership with them meant we were trusted to continue to maintain the system and in doing so, we’ve also helped them to understand it better. Finding a supplier that you can work with long term, that specialises in obsolescence and has experience in your industry, will support you in your role as plant manager.”


According to Fernanda Martins at software giant AVEVA, better management of obsolescence involves a two-pronged, proactive approach that focuses on issues that affect both engineering a plant and operating it. “Design and engineering to build new plants or modernise existing sites has become more complex, as the pace required for projects to meet new market demands has increased and capital budgets have reduced,” says Martins. “Traditional methods and software for engineering projects become obsolete if you want to avoid project overruns and delays (which is very common in the EPC space) to mitigate risks for the project and the future operations.” Also on the design side, Martins notes that old plants frequently end up having information spread across multiple systems. “Dispersed and legacy systems containing critical information can make it difficult to find engineering and equipment information when engineers and technicians at the plant most need it,” she explains.

On the operational side, Martins observes that in heavy asset industries – such as chemicals, power, mining and oil and gas – plants can run through multiple decades. “Companies in these sectors face equipment and software obsolescence regularly. With time, equipment starts to operate at lower efficiency and traditionally, companies rely on preventive maintenance or obsolete methods for conditioned-based maintenance,” she asserts. “The reality is that they don’t have accurate information about the equipment efficiency and the impacts of operating at lower levels (trade-offs between operating at lower level and scheduling maintenance to get back to higher efficiency levels). As the equipment gets older, the lack of information becomes increasingly critical. If they plan maintenance too often, they might be spending more money than necessary. If they plan too little, they might be at risk of an unplanned downtime that can lead to losses and accidents.”

In terms of how plants can tackle these design and operational issues, it’s no surprise that AVEVA focuses on digital solutions. “Industrial plants must prepare to deal with obsolescence,” emphasises Martins. “We find some sectors investing more into this than others, according to the criticality of their operations and the number of critical and expensive assets they operate. Dealing with this reactively can be costly and risky. The good news is that plants can start investing in digital technology to support them before they need to deal with obsolescence. That’s because the same digital technology that supports the obsolescence phase, expanding the useful life of an asset, can also be used to improve performance at any time during the plant lifecycle. The combination of consolidated digital technology coupled with innovative approaches leveraging AI and cloud computing can enhance the plant understanding through easy access to information, advanced modelling and AI-based guidance, enabling quick strategic actions.”


As much as digital tools can help here, Steve Hughes at ABB rightly points out that the human factor should not be neglected when considering how to manage issues surrounding obsolescence. “Obsolescence is of course a problem, but the bigger problem is arguably a lack of awareness of it on the plant floor.

“Plant owners often don’t realise that equipment is obsolete or approaching obsolescence – not until the day it fails,” continues Hughes. “This then causes a panic, resulting in rushed decision-making that fails to consider the bigger picture. Equipment will age and degrade over time, and this can be predicted with some accuracy up to a point. However, you also need hands-on knowledge and experience on-site to best understand what a piece of equipment specifically needs at a given time, and what it will need in the future.”

On the subject of digitalisation, Hughes comments: “I don’t consider this to be particularly hastening obsolescence, rather it increases awareness of legacy equipment through the fact that implementing digital monitoring solutions means that organisations are increasingly actively looking at their assets. The digital transition is not something that happens overnight, and retrofitting legacy equipment with digital functionality is now an increasingly viable option for digitalising assets without having to replace entire fleets in one go. ABB’s Smart Sensor, for instance, is a small device that fits onto the side of a motor and provides trending data to allow assets to be monitored for any degradation in performance over time.”

For plant managers tasked with managing obsolescence, Hughes advises that forward planning is crucial: “You don’t stand a chance unless you know what you’re dealing with. This means getting a handle on the age, condition, lifecycle stage and operating environment for each asset to determine where you need to focus your attention.

“Cataloguing fleets can be made extremely easy using life cycle management services such as our Life Cycle Assessment, which provides a framework to make sure that this information is up to date and readily accessible,” he adds. “This allows users to keep track of all assets simultaneously, and understand which are due for maintenance or upgrades, and when. Knowing that a motor or drive is due to be replaced in, say, three years, will not only inform a plant’s maintenance strategy today, but will also provide plenty of time to prepare for when it needs replacing in the future. As a result, unexpected failures can be almost eliminated, while upgrades or replacements can be planned, to reduce disruption as much as possible.”


“Not so long ago you typically had two options – repair or replace. Now there are many more to consider,” says Steve Hughes at ABB. “The best thing to do is to talk to your equipment manufacturer and establish a dialogue with them. All our motion products go through the same product lifecycle stages: from active, through to classic, then limited and, finally, obsolete. Your manufacturer can advise you when products lifecycle stages are due to change and can also help you determine what your options are – whether this means repairing, replacing, reconditioning, or retrofitting.

“Our life cycle audit process can help customers identify where their ABB products are in their lifecycle and to provide the available options,” he adds. “This can allow the customer to make fact-based decisions on what solution is best, based on issues including the remaining life of the driven plant, physical access, cabinet condition, etc.”

Louise Davis

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