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This blog covers numerous topics on industrial automation such as operations & management, continuous & batch processing, connectivity, manufacturing & machine control, and Industry 4.0.

The material and information contained on this website is for general information purposes only. ISA blog posts may be authored by ISA staff and guest authors from the automation community. Views and opinions expressed by a guest author are solely their own, and do not necessarily represent those of ISA. Posts made by guest authors have been subject to peer review.

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Webinar Recording: 10 Essentials of a Successful Upgrade or DCS Migration

This post was written in conjunction with an ISA co-hosted webinar.


For many people, what we don’t know or understand can bring about a certain amount of fear, uncertainty and doubt. And, what we do know and understand makes us feel comfortable, so we tend to keep doing the same thing repeatedly. But sticking to the “status quo” isn’t always a good thing.

This is especially true when you must decide whether to upgrade or migrate your existing legacy distributed control system (DCS). You find yourself asking, what is the worst thing that can happen if we keep the old system? It runs, right? Perhaps. But to be realistic you must also ask, how long can we continue to support the existing system? What happens if it fails? Or, is it even compatible with the latest new technology on the market? In other words, you must weigh the facts carefully to see which path forward holds the most risk, and which one has the most potential to yield a favorable outcome – that is, which solution will positively impact the overall productivity, profitability and safety of your manufacturing processes.

Remaining “status quo” is easy: You know what you are working with in terms of your existing system, and you understand the huge risks involved if nothing changes. So, let’s look at what might give you the most angst if you consider an upgrade, or a migration to a completely new platform.

Risk zone: don’t panic

The potential for enormous risk is during the entire installation process, but particularly during the cutover from the old automation system to the new one. At this stage, production can be affected either for good or bad. The cutover point is where the parts of the larger automation system designated to stay in place are moved to the new platform. These typically include field instrumentation, valves, motor controllers, and so on—with all the supporting networks and wiring. These components interface with the system via input/output (I/O) cards, and every connection must be moved from the old platform to the new one. So, how can we minimize this potential risk? Proper upfront planning is key and should be done well in advance of the cutover process. Let’s see why.

Work zone: FEL planning ahead

A well-planned upgrade or migration project should have a detailed roadmap developed prior to implementation. Without strong upfront planning, the project will be subject to significant changes later, and its outcome could potentially be less than favorable. It is important to involve your process engineers and maintenance group in the front-end loading (FEL) planning efforts. During the FEL process, if you decide to work with an automation solutions provider or an automation system supplier, the cutover steps should be thoroughly outlined and scheduled. If everyone works together, the resulting cutover plan will minimize risk, lower your costs and maximize operational uptime.

The cutover usually signals the end of the project is in sight. By the time a new DCS is delivered to your facility, the following work should be done:

  • Documentation reviews and updates for the facility (with team leader audits)
    • Piping and instrumentation diagrams (P&IDs)
    • Loop sheets
    • Panel drawings
    • Rack room drawings
    • Cable and conduit schedules
  • Field devices and their supporting wiring should be verified
  • Factory acceptance test (FAT)
  • Infrastructure needed to support the new system
  • Site acceptance test (SAT)

More migration considerations

Besides the upfront planning and the actual installation process, there are many other elements you must consider in an upgrade or migration project such as resource availability, funding and buy-in to name a few. It’s risky business to assume you know the best approach unless you have considered best practices and options from all available sources in industry. One of the key points to remember is to identify potential risk areas early in the planning process, especially during the installation process. A systematic analysis should consider things, such as safety, downtime, resource allocation, network traffic levels, data integrity and cyber security while there is still the greatest flexibility to deal with them.

With proper planning and implementation guidelines in place, you can take the fear, uncertainty and doubt out of your upgrade or DCS migration project and stack the odds in your favor with minimal to no risk.

Charles Toth
Charles Toth
Charles Toth started his seven-year career working as a senior engineer at MAVERICK Technologies, a platform-independent automation solutions provider. He is currently a business development manager for MAVERICK.

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