How better data and measurement, along with guidance from a system integrator, can take migration across the finish line

People don’t like change.

I already knew this but lived it working at my first job after graduating from my electrical engineering technology program.

During my first week, I spent two eight-hour days crimping and cutting wires manually. By the end of the first day, my arms were sore; by the second day, my arms ached even after I let work. When I asked why we were doing this, I was told, “This is always how we’ve done it.”

When people ask why I got into automation, I tell them that story because, at that time, I didn’t realize just how many better ways there were to operate.

When I started at EECOL, I saw how industrial automation could help companies be more efficient while optimizing the safety and well-being of workers. What had taken me 16 hours to complete over two days, with automation, would have only taken 30 minutes.

My name is Pooja Dahuja, and I’m proud to be an Automation Specialist with EECOL because I help customers find the right solution for their automation problems. Performing research, informing my customers about their options, and leaning on my team's 250 years of experience are just some of the reasons I love my job.

The expertise and experience you need for migration automation

When it comes to migration automation, there’s no better person to work with than Senior Automation Specialist Marty Bince.

Marty’s broad industry experience – which includes oil and gas, pipelines, mining, pulp and paper, forest products, water and wastewater, food and pharmaceuticals, and manufacturing industries – makes him a great resource to help understand the challenges of industrial automation.

However, it is his automation technology experience – which includes actuators, flow computers, Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC), Ethernet Programmable Automation Controllers (ePAC), Human Machine Interface (HMI), Distributed Control Systems (DCS), and software applications such as historians, asset management, large and small scale HMI/Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, mobile workforce, digital twin and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) – that helps us solve automation challenges.

It doesn’t hurt that he was named the 2023 president of the International Society of Automation (ISA) after volunteering for 20 years in various roles for the organization at the local Calgary section and internationally.

Below, Marty will walk us through migration automation and how better data can lead to a more accurate cost-benefit ROI.

The path to migration automation

For more than 20 years, I’ve helped companies unlock the value of automation. But as much as the world of automation has advanced, the criteria companies typically use to assess the value of migration have remained the same.

As a Senior Automation Specialist with EECOL, I help companies with legacy systems chart a viable course forward. While there are many factors to consider, a focus must be placed on ensuring the correct type of data is collected to determine a more accurate ROI.

Do you have an aging automation system?

Automation systems are built for longevity, and the industry takes advantage of this to keep production moving at the designed production rate. However, microprocessors that control systems depend upon are obsoleted far sooner than the industry prefers. When microprocessors are replaced by new suppliers or new technology, vendors have no choice but to make a supply decision and announce a migration plan.

Working with older equipment and legacy systems presents its own set of problems, including:

Increased failure-induced downtime and electrical stress as the internal electrical components and circuits experience wear and tear and the aging power supplies shoulder a larger share of dynamic changes and electrical fluctuations within the power control system, often ahead of other components,

Operational Technology (OT) cybersecurity issues,

• Lack of personnel that can reprogram or repair an aging system,

• And finally, spare parts may become obsolete.

A successful migration automation strategy hinges on a viable path to the next-generation platform. There's no denying that substantial investments have already been poured into engineering, programming, commissioning, Input/Output (I/O) cards, and field device wiring.

When contemplating a migration, you may consider updating the automation microprocessor (often the first to become obsolete), various components, or even the entire system.

The ‘what,’ the ‘why,’ and the ‘how’ of migration automation

Assuming a migration route is available, crucial questions emerge: How and, perhaps more importantly, why should one proceed with a migration? What tangible benefits will the plant, its owner, and its staff reap from upgrading legacy equipment and systems to meet the demands of Industry 4.0?

Consideration must be given to the risks of an aging system, such as failure, parts, downtime, cybersecurity issues, difficulty with expanding and adding new technology, or staff that may no longer be trained. Meanwhile, the plant must balance the cost of the risk and liability of leaving an aging, obsolete system in place versus the other priorities in the plant. Here are some factors for further consideration:

What’s the ROI on a migration? Plant management will consider the dollar value of equipment against production from that equipment and its operating expenses. Spending money by plant management for no financial improvement when there are other operational expenses, other necessary capital investments, and a limited supply of dollars rarely means a migration will happen. No extra production = no ROI = no migration.

Same program, no different outcome? Suppose the “brains” (microprocessor) of the system are replaced with a more modern brain, but the operating program is not changed simultaneously. In that case, it will result in no additional production, no reduction in equipment downtime, or other benefits.

What is the latent capability of the existing automation system? Is the existing system performing the same as the day it was installed? Most likely. Is that system a minimum system, meaning it was driven by the need to commission and hit the start-up target date as soon as possible? Most automation systems do not utilize their potential because need-to-have (start-up) is prioritized over nice-to-have, with improvements put off to another day.

Improvements to an existing system, while possible, await the proper justification. The automation system is invisible to plant management, so any improvements need significant performance improvement without any unplanned downtime. Add a piece of equipment for increased production – no problem. Improving the system by a few percent – again, what’s that ROI if plant management can’t quantify and justify the increase in production?

You can’t change what you can’t measure

Traditional Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) do not always tell the whole story

This article leans heavily on the concepts within Dr. Peter Martin’s book, The Value of Automation: The Best Investment an Industrial Company Can Make.

As he puts it, the KPIs that plants measure are product throughput, energy consumption, and material consumption.

However, these types of measures can lack important information:

Downtime monitoring: Product throughput is generally easily measured, but minor downtime outages are as easy to identify or capture. However brief, these interruptions in production can accumulate over time, leading to hidden losses in efficiency and productivity. Overall operational efficiency may be realized with a keen focus on identifying and addressing these minor disruptions.

Energy consumption analysis: Energy consumption by the plant is known, but the energy usage of individual equipment and processes is only sometimes known. Neglecting this level of detail may result in missed opportunities for energy efficiency, cost savings, and sustainability initiatives. Zeroing in on these areas of inefficiency allows you to implement targeted improvements.

Quality assurance: Material consumed may be known, but its quality may only become apparent further down the production line or during final product inspection. Failing to account for quality assurance sooner in production can lead to quality control challenges, rework, and potential customer dissatisfaction.

Of these three measures, energy consumption costs and micro-downtime outages may have the most significant impacts on production and costs.

What can better data and measurement do?

It’s been said that you can’t change what you can’t measure. Does the plant have the proper measurements and data to make better decisions? Additional power measurement devices may be necessary at crucial points to understand the energy consumption (in real-time) of a specific business unit or critical piece of equipment.

Knowing whether production can be lowered or shifted to ensure the next energy peak would be avoided can be a small investment that doesn’t modify production but would improve profitability. The good news is that most of these sensors can be directly incorporated into a legacy system.

Small additions that enable a suitable ROI

The following minor changes can provide better data insights without swapping out a plant’s entire legacy system or incurring an insurmountable cost:

Advanced loop tuning software: This may be added to manage the process and create better control or quicker time to stabilize startup conditions, increasing production, efficiency, and output (or increased quality output) from the same equipment. Advanced control strategies have been available for some time. They can usually be added to an existing system externally (for example, additional equipment and software on an HMI) or internally to a migrated modern system.

Adding an external plant historian: A plant historian provides the tools different users need to evaluate the plant data for their purposes. Adding one to an existing control system can provide a complete picture of operating conditions. For example, a process engineer or operator may want to know how the equipment operates, when it functions optimally and at what settings. A maintenance technician or planner may want to know how equipment performs, looking for anomalies or indicators that equipment should be maintained before failure. Production management may wish to understand what production costs are now, how to shift production during peak energy times or evaluate if profitability would improve if production were adjusted.

Adding Operational Equipment Efficiency (OEE): These measurements can provide insights into the micro-downtime occurrences that prevent increased output or can identify where to spend resources to make the most difference. Usually, these are relatively minor calculations for a modern system, such as logging downtime or measuring total run time versus available run time.

Adding an external Condition-based monitoring (CbM): CbM, in addition to a predictive analytics system, may predict the failure of equipment two hours, two days or two weeks in advance and is the next big area for improvement. CbM and predictive analytics fundamentally involve connecting to a model of equipment history and predicting anomalies using machine learning or AI (standard cloud applications today) against that model. This process was much more difficult in the past, but the connection to cloud systems has opened the computing resources to manage assets proactively.

OT cybersecurity: This can be addressed in a new modern system, allowing for peace of mind and due diligence in our connected world. OT personnel frequently cite, “All OT systems are air-gapped.” Still, through human error or fundamental design flaws, systems can be less secure because of the need for a connection to a laptop and other company resources. OT cybersecurity alone doesn’t create an ROI; instead, OT cybersecurity works with other digital tools that deliver continued production with peace of mind for plant management.

How a system integrator can help identify the requirements to affect improvement

The plant and production managers can locate the production challenges they face. Determining what data they need to pinpoint when production suffers (in real-time) and from what general source will be critical to gaining approval.

A control system integrator will be well-versed in helping a plant identify and build the requirements, as these can take 40-80 hours of research to investigate, identify and prepare a proposal to mitigate and justify the expenditure. They can also help execute the solution.

Combining a control system migration, a migration plan and a control system integrator should provide the confidence and the cost-benefit ROI to take a migration across the finish line.

A modest upgrade, including some of the previously mentioned improvements, can be combined with the automation system migration to maximize the utility of your automation system. This may set the stage for continuing projects to improve further decisions in real-time for months or years after the initial plant startup.


An upgrade of a legacy automation system will likely go ahead when it provides some additional ROI over other capital expenditures. A systems integrator can help identify areas of improvement, select software additions that give the data to make real-time decisions, make a proposal and execute a migration that delivers the ROI the plant requires to justify the expense.

Final thoughts on migration automation

As you can see, Marty is both knowledgeable about migration automation and committed to helping companies improve data collection as a means of better understanding performance and ROI.

Taking this more fulsome approach to data collection and measurement, along with leaning on a system integrator, will help you make the case for migration while expanding the capabilities of your current legacy system.

More than that, being proactive and making informed decisions will help you future-proof your business against disruptions and the unexpected costs of a failure-induced downtime that halts production. When you're in crisis mode, the fastest fix that gets a system back up and running will always win out, but this is not necessarily the most strategic option.

It is natural to fear change and the unknown – by meeting and measuring the realities of a legacy system head-on, we can dictate how and when change happens instead of having it thrust upon us.

If you need support with migration automation or want to discuss any other specifics of automation, we’re here to help!

Contact Automation Group