From the editor's desk: Legacy upgrades and the Frankenstein problem

November 2021 News

Steven Meyer, Editor

In his article this issue, contributing editor Gavin Halse makes the point that any manufacturing company about to commit to a legacy control system upgrade must be awake to the problems of interoperability, or risk ending up with a mishmash of disparate technologies. Just as the misshapen creature in Mary Shelley’s 19th century novel was ‘born’ of a series of ill-considered laboratory experiments, so a badly implemented digital transformation can leave a company with bigger control headaches than it had before. While Frankenstein’s horribly disfigured monster was shunned by society and forced to wander alone through the wilderness, so said manufacturing company might equally be rejected by consumers if it is unable to bring competitive offerings to market.

In fact, realising the degree of OT/IT convergence needed to effect the full benefits of Industry 4.0 is an area where even the giant petrochemical conglomerates only ‘get by with a little help from their friends’. Friends in this context refers to all the member companies of the Open Process Automation Group – an initiative to create a new generation of automation systems with an architecture distinct from the DCS and PLC systems used for traditional process automation. The idea is to bring about a new generation of control systems that are easier to maintain and upgrade, thus freeing manufacturers to improve their processes rather than struggling to support the systems that automate them.

When one considers that Open Process Automation grew out of ExxonMobil’s need to upgrade its legacy DCS platforms, realisation dawns that end users want the freedom to tailor systems to their exact needs, without worrying about any interoperability monsters.

Many smaller manufacturing companies in Africa face the same type of problems that ExxonMobil did – just on a smaller scale. So, the work of the Open Process Automation Group affords them an opportunity to evaluate the benefits of more granular open automation systems, without taking any risks along the way.

Interoperability though, as crucial as it is, only addresses one of the prerequisites for a successful automation system upgrade. Softer issues, like finding the right automation partner for the project, can be just as important. So, while the world waits to see how the next generation of open automation systems might look, manufacturers faced with a pressing need to upgrade their legacy control systems in the here and now will find useful insight in the article ‘What to do when fragmented systems get too complex’ ( Begone, scary monsters.

Holiday greetings

The end of another tough year, but at least we’re making progress against the pandemic, even if we could be a bit further down that road. Internationally, it’s good to see travel restrictions easing and crowds returning (at least partially) to support their favourite sporting events. From the team at SA Instrumentation and Control, here’s wishing all our readers and advertisers a happy and restful end-of-year break. Come back safe in January, energised and ready to confront the challenges of 2022!


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