No more trouble with outdated devices: The ABC of obsolescence management

30 % of the assets in an average industrial plant are obsolete. Luckily, there are some good solutions for obsolescence management.

Did you know that 30 % of the assets in the average industrial plant are obsolete? And in most cases the responsible maintenance and reliability manager probably isn’t aware of it. Doesn’t this sound like a high risk for successful and seamless production?

Everyone wants to avoid the situation of urgently needing a spare part that isn’t available any more. Luckily, there are some excellent solutions and tools for obsolescence management that help to mitigate risks. Here’s my ABC for enabling maintenance and reliability managers to approach obsolescence in a safe and care-free way.

A = Active and planned obsolescence management – the ideal world

Having an active or proactive approach towards obsolescence management is of course highly beneficial for any maintenance and reliability manager. The more you plan and predict obsolescence in advance, the easier you will be able to control risks. When implementing proactive obsolescence management, attention should be paid to the following measures:

  • Choice of material and suppliers: Before buying critical devices, integrating human-machine-interfaces or setting up an entire automation process, you should consider the estimated lifetime of the equipment. The reliability of suppliers and their products should be clearly evaluated.
  • Negotiation of services: I recommend setting up a long-term service agreement with each supplier of critical equipment. Ideally, you should make the agreement before the material is phased out.
  • Stock of spare parts: For critical instrumentation you can arrange a supply of spare parts in advance. This includes buying spare parts before there is a concrete need for replacement and before the instrumentation is declared as being obsolete.
  • Regular analysis of risks: When developing an overview of possible obsolescence risks, it pays to analyze your facility on a regular basis. This analysis should not only consider the life cycle stage of your equipment, but also current innovation potential and technological mega-trends.
  • Retention of inhouse competences: This point is often underestimated. If you want your plant to run seamlessly, you will always need competent staff in charge of operations. Try to retain skilled maintenance and reliability managers as well as engineers who have a good knowledge of the installed equipment.

Of course, being able implement all these measures, can be regarded as quite a privilege. It’s not possible for every maintenance and reliability manager in every industrial plant to make in-depth obsolescence plans for the future. Many have to deal with equipment that was installed decades ago when even life cycle management was still in its infancy and obsolescence management entirely unknown.

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Moreover, the pro-active approach won’t be suitable for all cases, as you don’t want to get into the situation of excessive maintenance practices, where the costs outweigh the benefits. That’s why I would also like to present some best practices for getting quick wins when handling obsolete equipment.

B = Best practices for starting obsolescence management – the reality

If (pro)active obsolescence management seems to be out of reach for the processes and material in your facility, there are good hands-on methods that you can easily implement to lower risks. The opposite of a proactive approach to obsolescence management is, of course, a reactive one. This would mean simply reacting to occurring issues: you replace parts when they are defective, you check the availability of instrumentation when its phase-out is announced and you plan to implement a new automation system when the existing one fails.

This approach naturally increases the risk of unexpected production downtimes. That’s why I wouldn’t recommend a purely reactive approach for your entire set of instrumentation (but maybe for those parts of it that aren’t critical). I’d rather vote for a combination of best practices that have proven to be easily realized and to generate concrete advantages.

  • Analyze your equipment: The very first step to hands-on obsolescence management must always be an analysis of your plant (= installed base analysis). What instrumentation is installed? How old is it? How many of your devices are already obsolete? Many maintenance and reliability managers don’t know. How can you find out? If you are using digital communication, information on the obsolescence status can be easily gathered. Endress+Hauser offers a digital service that can automatically create a digital twin of all assets in a facility (at least those with digital communication).  This service is called Netilion Analytics and provides the user with detailed information on the obsolescence status of a device. The analysis of an entire plant can be done within a couple of hours. Every maintenance and reliability manager is able to do this. (If you are still using analog technologies, some manual effort may be required, but it remains a job worth being done.)
  • Get the most out of the information gained: Whenever you have access to the digital twin of your assets, you will be able to look up the availability of devices and spare parts as well as recommendations of successor products. By using the digital service Netilion Analytics, the information related to your specific assets will be displayed automatically.
  • Define criticality: You know that when handling all ongoing processes in a facility, there is no such thing as focus and prioritization. After you have accessed the information on your assets, you need to differentiate between critical and uncritical devices, in order to get an overview of what should be done first. The digital service Netilion Analytics can be very helpful here too. Its interface offers the possibility of defining the criticality of measuring tags, so that you get a clear view of the relevant data. You can also consider implementing a reactive obsolescence management approach for the assets you have defined as uncritical.
  • Plan replacement and maintenance: The access to relevant information will always unlock new potential. After analyzing your installed base and finding which critical assets might become obsolete soon (or are already obsolete), you can plan maintenance and replacement intervals. For industries that are dependent on continuously running processes (e.g. chemical or food producers), it is highly relevant to find a good moment for maintenance work. In industries that are able to interrupt production (e.g. pharmaceuticals, life sciences) there is, of course, more freedom to decide when to replace equipment.
  • Evaluate optimization potential: Having detailed information on your assets also empowers you to draw conclusions for the future. By evaluating your assets and the risks resulting from obsolescence, you can think of the next steps for optimizing the situation in your facility. In this respect, digitalization can be of interest. If your fleet is up to date and ready for digital solutions, you can evaluate which additional technologies can be integrated digitally in order to optimize your process (e.g. access to further information revealing additional performance insights).

By getting some help from digital services like Netilion Analytics, you can quickly and effectively start obsolescence management right away. This way, you have a cost-effective and hands-on approach to mitigate the risk of unexpected production downtimes or process interruptions.

C = Construct your facility with an obsolescence management strategy – the future

If you are in the luxurious position of constructing a new facility or designing a new process, you will be able to pave the way for a highly efficient life cycle and obsolescence management. This means that starting from the scratch, you can decide if you wish to standardize your instrumentation and automation systems. You can define a set of standard suppliers and create an overall picture of your installation that is as harmonic as possible. This will ease maintenance work in the future and lower any risks of unexpected obsolescence.