DCS migration success rests with suppliers and users alike

Both owner-operators and suppliers face many complex issues regarding when and how to migrate obsolete control systems and technology.

Peter Reynolds
ARC Advisory Group

Both owner-operators and suppliers face many complex issues regarding when and how to migrate obsolete control systems and technology. An estimated $65 billion worth of obsolete technology is still in use today, much of it in the upstream and downstream oil and gas industries. Since many of these systems are still performing well beyond original life expectancy, this introduces appreciable risk for owner-operators. This risk increases for control systems installed offshore, where environmental conditions can result in premature failures and increased reliability problems for electronic devices, and where the consequences of failure can be far more costly than those on land-based exploration and production assets.

Some of the general issues driving distributed control system (DCS) migration relate to the unavailability of automation system components. However, a shortage of the skills required to support obsolete systems is another major issue. Owner-operators must decide how to justify and manage the business risk, while suppliers must develop solutions that simplify the process, enabling owner-operators to migrate successfully from the obsolete systems and thus ensure business continuity.

A half-day workshop at the 2012 ARC World Industry Forum in Orlando, Florida, brought together over 100 end users, suppliers, system integrators, and engineering contractors to discuss issues, needs, and wants associated with migrating control systems. One of the biggest challenges, according to workshop participants, is justifying a control system migration. While plant engineers may have a good handle on determining equipment reliability and predicting end of life, it's more difficult to do this with control systems. This is one reason why it is challenging to convince management of the need to replace old technology or migrate to new control system technology.

One of the problems with systems in particular is that while assets like pumps, pipes, conveyer systems, and other mechanical devices may all be designed to be repaired or replaced as components, automation systems generally must be replaced in their entirety.

Some common practices used to justify migrations reflect internal practices that might be executed during a migration project. Others represent "open season" for many of the technology suppliers, engineering contractors, and system integrators:

  • Develop a financial assessment of the cost of not migrating
  • Improve the rigor of control systems reliability data to include actual failure events
  • Develop a technology maturity model across industry. Some facilities are late adopters, while others keep up with technology.
  • Benchmark against other companies that are running obsolete systems
  • Supplier evaluations are 70% technical and 30% commercial. Drive value by creating long-term contracts and user/supplier relationships
  • While not typically used to justify migrations, the practice of standardization can help lower total cost of ownership. Take the time to perform a solid market assessment before beginning your migration.

Migration approaches vary not just from industry to industry, but from company to company. Generally, operators of facilities such as refineries, which never "sleep," prefer to conduct migrations while processes are up and running - a method known as the hot cutover approach - since their turnarounds are done at long, typically five-year intervals. On the other hand, discussions with users who have experience on offshore platforms - which also never sleep - indicate that, on these facilities, any significant control system migration activities would only be undertaken during infrequent major maintenance turnarounds.

One leading integrated refiner/petrochemical/specialty chemical company performs approximately 85% of its migrations using the hot cutover approach and 15% using the off-line cutover approach. A leading global system integrator found that hot cutovers tend to be more cost effective. Some users also indicated that, regardless of their migration planning, hurricanes and other events forced unplanned migrations.

While migration strategy is a key factor in vendor selection, most migrations are done on a per-site basis. One global chemical company is now minimizing the number of vendors, and standardizing to support lower total cost of ownership. Another major integrated energy company looks to the automation supplier to manage the hardware inventory, and to help the company decide when system components should be replaced.

Many end users say it is important to manage a technology roadmap with suppliers on an ongoing basis. Having all sites near obsolescence at the same time would be extremely detrimental to operations.

Supplier evaluation techniques that work well in the early stages of a migration project include developing a weighted scorecard against all criteria using KT International or Six Sigma methods. Workshop participants noted that a wide range of definition and weighting for each criterion are often used based on differences and priorities of organizations. Developing a functional specification up front could prove invaluable for any project.

Owner-operators and the control system end users must develop risk management strategies for automation technologies that align with operational philosophy, corporate directives, and risk management guidelines. This will ensure that investment decisions for plant automation are made at the highest level in the organization, and that the project team will have appropriate corporate-level support.

Suppliers and end users must also jointly develop long-range strategies for migrating obsolete automation technologies. This will help ensure that obsolete equipment is sustained until a migration project can be planned and executed.

The migration project planning should include end users, suppliers, and any third-party engineering and procurement contractor or system integrator firms involved. The keys to a successful migration project are to have the right mix of resources and to involve chance management experts at an early stage.

Ultimately, the owner-operator must balance the risks of failure and lost opportunities against new capabilities, standardization, and potential new opportunities.

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