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Welcome to the official blog of the International Society of Automation (ISA).

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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How to Upgrade Legacy Equipment for an Industry 4.0 Factory

Industry 4.0 is in full swing, and it’s seeing companies everywhere adopt new techniques for gathering and acting on data. Manufacturing, supply chain, and distribution professionals may be wondering if they require brand-new equipment to take advantage of Industry 4.0’s data-focused, automation-ready technologies.

It’s possible to upgrade older equipment and modernize it for the challenges and opportunities of the day. Here’s a guide to making legacy assets compatible with emerging technology.

Why Upgrade Legacy Equipment?

First, why stick with legacy equipment? Operators of industrial plants are loathe to replace machines before their time and might rightfully wonder whether Industry 4.0 is change for its own sake. Being resistant to sweeping change is justified here. Legacy machines make sense because engineers already trust them and know how to operate them. Simply put, they work and don’t need to be fixed.

Industry professionals recognize that most manufacturers and distributors have a mix of legacy and modern equipment. The average age of material-handling machines in the logistics industry is around 15.3 years, according to one survey. However, these items might be capable of delivering useful lifetimes of 20 or 30 years.

This represents an opportunity. Without investment in Industry 4.0 technology, these facilities remain a disjointed collection of machines instead of a unified, information-sharing network of assets. Engineers in manufacturing and distribution settings spend as much as 30%-70% of their working hours hunting down information. This alone should go a long way toward justifying interest in Industry 4.0 retrofits.

Steps to Retrofit Older Manufacturing Equipment

The chief advantages of Industry 4.0—seamless information sharing and data mobility—should be highly attractive given these statistics. Legacy retrofits should provide almost any manufacturing, warehousing, supply chain, or distribution facility with an actionable step or two worth taking.

1. Learn About M2M

Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is often one of the first opportunities manufacturing and logistics companies investigate during their modernization efforts. This is because digitizing legacy equipment requires the means to make them “talk” with more modern hardware and software. Machines that pool and share data across departments, work areas, or facilities provide operators with clearer data on how to fine-tune the entire operation from start to finish.

Advantages include:

  • Streamlining production by coordinating multiple machines
  • Compatibility with older, reconditioned, or obsolete equipment
  • Bringing newly acquired companies or subsidiaries into the digital fold regardless of the equipment’s age

2. Add Machine Sensors

After coordinating various equipment and work areas through M2M upgrades, facility managers and enterprise planners should find themselves impressed by the quality of insights that become available. They’ll quickly learn to identify bottlenecks as well as opportunities for process improvements.

The ability for machines to collaborate and share data is a start to the full Industry 4.0 picture, but not the whole. Adding sensors to legacy equipment ensures the information being exchanged is as detailed and actionable as possible. M2M unifies potentially vast fleets of Ethernet, wireless, and fieldbus devices. Adding smart sensors to the picture makes a huge range of machine-monitoring feats possible, including predictive maintenance.

Facilities can invest fully in condition-based monitoring (CbM) rather than reactive or scheduled maintenance by using Industry 4.0’s talent for data mobility. Gathering data directly from machines on how they’re performing—including current handling volume, operating temperature, vibrations, noise, and potential leaks—provides advantages. This includes longer service intervals, fewer full-stop machine breakdowns, and a more reasonable parts and maintenance budget. Companies that make this investment could save up to 40% on upkeep.

3. Explore Edge Computing

The idea of the cloud has been around long enough that it’s becoming passé. Cloud-based computing and enterprise-planning platforms have their place, but for many organizations, the concept of engaging with centralized providers’ servers across tremendous distances is over.

Companies investing in cyber-physical infrastructure in 2022 can future-proof in a way businesses that went all-in on the traditional cloud couldn’t. Older industrial internet of things (IIoT) infrastructure involved collecting data where the action happens—like in warehouses and on factory floors—and sending it to a remote server for processing. Any actionable insights were delivered back to the source afterward.

Edge computing cuts the middlemen out of this equation and substantially reduces the bandwidth burden and the cyber-threat attack surface. Retrofitting legacy equipment with sensors adds data-gathering capabilities. Edge computing allows cyber-physical systems to process this information where it’s gathered, greatly reducing bandwidth costs, and making the gathered business intelligence insights available almost instantly.

4. Think Small

Although most of today’s mental imagery probably involved heavy machinery or sprawling infrastructure, Industry 4.0 can bring more modest assets into the digital fold as well. Companies that want to explore the benefits of connecting factory floors and distribution centers through Industry 4.0 tech would be wise to begin with smaller assets and more focused objectives.

Digital technologies serve their masters best when a clear problem has been observed and defined. One challenge that’s probably universal in this sector is misplaced tools and equipment. A first modest Industry 4.0 upgrade for legacy equipment might involve asset tracking and location awareness for hand tools and small vehicles.

Modern warehouses and distribution facilities are hosts to a dizzying array of items that see hourly use:

  • Pallet jacks
  • Hand trucks
  • Handheld scanners
  • Totes and bins
  • Walkie stackers
  • Order pickers
  • Mobile computer terminals

Even walkie-talkies grow legs from time to time. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips and proximity sensors are coming into more widespread usage across heavy industries. Knowing where somebody left their pallet truck or having sensors log when tools leave certain areas can go a long way toward securing valuable assets and ensuring their availability.

5. Focus on Safety

Consider another specific objective for which a company might turn to technology. Suppose a facility suffered from a higher-than-average number of collisions between forklifts and pedestrians. It becomes more difficult to ensure safe environments and scale the employee safety training OSHA required by law as companies grow.

This is precisely why improving safety, including reducing collisions with heavy machinery, is often among the first-stated objectives of companies investing in machine awareness and other Industry 4.0 solutions. Businesses that experience the safety advantages offered by Industry 4.0 tech will probably find themselves exploring similar upgrades in due time to realize even more benefits. A safe workplace isn’t just required by law—it’s also something that today’s job seekers look for specifically and an important part of retention when the labor supply is uncertain.

The Benefits of Industry 4.0 Are Clear

Industry 4.0 is a collection of value-adding technologies, and research is beginning to quantify their worth. Research from McKinsey shows that, through this technology, companies involved with manufacturing and distribution can realize savings like:

  • A 30%-50% reduction in downtime
  • A 10%-30% improvement in product throughput
  • A 10%-20% decrease in the cost of quality

These days, the cost of quality is on every organization’s mind as it seeks to meet towering demands with stable supplies. Keeping trusted and familiar equipment as long as possible is a logical cost-saving tactic. Industry 4.0 upgrades to legacy equipment help these machines deliver value for years, even in a modern world. In fact, with the right technology retrofits, they may provide more value than ever before.

Emily Newton
Emily Newton
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine celebrating advances in science and technology.

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