Control system migration: Plan early and collaborate

Front-end loading (FEL) offers advantages for planning and budgeting

By Lynn Njaa, MAVERICK Technologies June 6, 2018
The time to modernize and optimize your manufacturing facility’s day-to-day operations has come. Change can be hard—but managing that change can be even harder. Every day, you and your team are responsible for managing and executing policies and procedures, production, maintenance, safety and quality, as well as other production-related tasks. Now, add to that workload the challenge of managing the upgrade and migration of the plant’s legacy control systems. 
A process control system (PCS) migration project, whether large or small, can be exciting but overwhelming. It requires an enormous amount of work and can be risky without the right team of experts and proper planning.
So where to start?
An automation upgrade or migration should deliver value throughout its entire lifecycle. Finding the right solutions and resources takes time, so planning is crucial. From a management perspective, the questions to ask are:
  • What tasks should be done first?
  • How do we reduce risk and keep operations up and running?
  • How do we manage our existing resources and transition from old to new processes?
  • Do we even have enough qualified resources with the extra time to plan and execute the project on a full-time basis?
  • How do we manage the project scope, budget, schedule, and overall plans?
  • What are the hardware and software technology needs?
  • What suppliers should we use?
How these questions are answered will have a major impact on the project’s outcome. A bad decision now will affect the manufacturing facility for years to come or could require great expense to fix. The success or failure of the migration project largely depends on proper up-front planning, investigation, and discovery. 
Qualified resources
Before beginning on a migration project, consider the process control team’s level of experience and whether they really have the time to define, design, configure, and implement a control system migration effort in addition to their normal daily responsibilities. A strong, qualified team of engineers, operators, IT personnel, and maintenance technicians is needed to collaborate and capture process knowledge. 
This kind of project may only happen once in a career. Whatever experience the team might have in-house, it’s unlikely they’ve managed a project of this scope. That’s why it’s so important to closely review all available options, including consulting a third-party expert.
When qualified practical experience is needed, a platform-independent automation solutions provider can bring tremendous value to the project. They can help make informed, unbiased decisions on which platforms to use based on their experiences using many types of products, systems, and platforms. If the plant uses a mix of different technologies, the third-party expert’s experience is especially beneficial.
A full solutions provider brings to the table the huge advantage of many lessons learned from their experience on various platforms. They partner with your team, applying their knowledge and the tools to assist in reducing your risk during the migration process. This expertise also is needed when tying together various control system platforms and in the planning involved with third-party interfaces.
Planning and budgeting 
A successful migration project begins with strong upfront planning and budgeting. Without this, the migration project can be subject to significant changes later in the project. The later in the project that necessary changes are identified, the more expensive those changes are to implement and the less likely they are to be incorporated without negative impacts to the schedule. Consequently, strong upfront planning and budgeting is not extra work. It is a best practice for successful migration projects.
Front-end loading (FEL) is a repeatable methodology that governs successful planning and budgeting. All discovery and documents are continually modified and refined as the project progresses, resulting in overall project cost savings.
During the FEL migration planning process, the right automation solutions provider can help with proper planning to avoid risk and manage costs. During this early stage of project planning, the solutions provider should take a consultative approach. 
Consider the following three FEL phases:
  • FEL 1: Align automation opportunities with business needs and goals
  • FEL 2: Determine preferred project/program option and obtain capital funding
  • FEL 3: Finalize scope, cost, and schedule for automation projects
In FEL 1, the management team and advisor work collaboratively to lay out a mutually agreeable path of migration that considers the plant’s business needs. This will ensure any existing intellectual property and process knowledge is incorporated into the new automation solution. This can reduce development costs while adding all the operational and safety features of the new system.
In the FEL 2 phase, the plant management team will review and evaluate several project options. An automation solutions provider is invaluable at this stage, as they can write the project plan, create a vendor comparison, provide a schedule, itemize cost estimates, and compare options by calculating the total cost of ownership. They also will consider many other elements, as well as the potential impact those elements may have in migrating from the old to the new systems. If the automation project needs to be implemented in a phased approach, the automation solutions provider also will help define the sequence of phases that best aligns with your facility’s needs and requirements.
In FEL 3, a solutions provider will help work through the planning and implementation stages and will be supportive of phased approaches while helping identify and manage costs. Granted, a phased approach may cost a little more than if a control system is installed all at once, but the costs can be spread out over a longer period. These phased approaches are also inherently less risky and allow for less downtime than replacing the entire control system as a single turn-key project.
Throughout all FEL phases, a solutions provider will offer high-value upgrades to the control systems using innovative techniques and technology. This creates more value for the migration project. Newer technologies can extend what your control system can do and will increase the value of the investment. After all, if you’re going to migrate, it’s best to do it right the first time.
Platform selection
A new control system platform is a major investment and is critical to operations. The individuals who have the responsibility to choose the supplier and system will set the course for the facility or unit for many years to come. The right choice will have a positive effect on the facility’s ability to produce effectively and profitably. The operators will find the system easy to use, and there will be room to improve and optimize the process. The wrong choice can have the opposite effects.
The supplier selection process should begin by identifying the critical to quality (CTQ) elements for the new control system. Input and collaboration from operations, engineering, and maintenance are crucial for the selection of the next PCS. Getting everyone on board and in alignment is key to the support of the migration and success of the project. When identifying CTQ elements, all automation projects should get the same consideration. A platform-independent solutions provider can work with stakeholders to outline your critical CTQ elements for an unbiased and objective choice.
Manage your success
Upfront planning and consulting an automation solutions provider are the keys to a successful migration. The right guidance will help you identify potential problem areas upfront and consider such things as risk, safety, downtime, resource allocation, network traffic levels, data integrity, cybersecurity, and more.
True team collaboration ensures efficient communication and a high level of success. The right automation solutions provider can help define your team’s goals and be there at every stage of the project. With everyone working together, you can build your project plan based on the FEL process and ensure your decisions are remembered positively for many years to come.
Lynn Njaa ( is a senior consultant for MAVERICK Technologies.