The Spectrum Of Broken Should You Replace Outdated Parts If They Are Still Functional 64cbf8d8166a1

When is the right time to upgrade outdated parts?

Aug. 3, 2023
"Just how broke is it? At what point is that costing you more money than it would cost to install a more robust, let's say, device level ring with EtherNet/IP. "

Sean Phillips is a senior project manager with Hargrove Controls and Automation. In May, Sean was awarded the prestigious 2023 Rising Star Award at the Control System Integrator Association Executive Conference in New Orleans. The Rising Star Award is given to an individual who is relatively new to the industry yet has shown attributes of a leader. Sean graduated from Auburn University and began his career in control systems engineering in 2014. Sean recently spoke with Plant Services editor in chief Thomas Wilk about his career, how automation and advanced technologies are changing the industry, and how the tight equipment can prevent downtime and impact the bottom line.

Listen to Sean Phillips on The Tool Belt Podcast

PS: You're talking to a guy where my previous job was with Panduit working for their content marketing, so I did a lot of work on fiber drops inside the plant floor and shielded Cat6 or 6A back to the either the data center or the cloud gate. When you talk to your clients, is there still a lot of work to be done to educate them on that physical layer element of integration? Or are a lot of plants, especially maybe chem or pharma, pulp & paper, where you’ve got sort of a messier environment inside the plant, are they aware that this issue can crop up when it comes to the projects you work on?

SP: That's a very good point. It's getting better now, but a lot of clients still think, or still look at EtherNet/IP as black magic. At the end of the day, it is the most robust communication protocol that I install, and I think a lot of people would agree with me on that.

That being said, there's still a lot of those old bus protocols out in the plant and a lot of people think “if it's not broke, don't fix it.” Broke sometimes can be on a spectrum, you know? Just how broke is it? At what point is that costing you more money than it would cost to install a more robust, let's say, device level ring with EtherNet/IP. Just speaking generally, that's what I'm seeing, it's a matter of weighing the cost of the new install versus getting rid of the old stuff, which sounds like an obvious conclusion to come to, but intermingled with that is the education of the return that you would get from installing these more robust networks.

PS: That's a really insightful point, about broke being on a spectrum. The people who are listening to this today are plant engineers, so they're not beginners in this field, they have a sense of what might be good on the network side. Sometimes it can take a little education on the plant side, especially as not all plants have a handle on where on the (broke) spectrum they want to be.

SP: Yes, that's also a very good point. Going back to a lot of these migrations where we're installing a new system, no client ever wants to be on the bleeding edge of technology. I think we have had a couple, but most everybody doesn't want to be on the bleeding edge. I can't even say all don't want to be back in the ’80s because some still do. But I get it, their mindset is, “if it's not broke, let’s not fix it,” and their threshold for broke is pretty low.

PS: I still do wonder how many machines are running XP in the background, just because it's on the broke spectrum, right?

SP: Or XP or NT, you know?

PS: Let me move to a closing question looking forward to what you're working on now. I understand you're working with the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center. As a kid, I was always fascinated by those museums. In my hometown here in Chicago, we have the Museum of Science and Industry; I took a trip out to the Exploratorium out there in San Francisco. Tell us about the Exploreum Science Center and the work you're doing there.

SP: This is kind of the controls engineer dream project. If you're not familiar with it, the Exploreum is basically a place where a lot of field trips come from elementary school, middle school and  a range of all ages. They go in there for the different interactive exhibits where they can learn things about a wide variety of topics, mostly in the STEM field, ranging from health all the way to science and math.

For this particular project, they have one little area that is around the health field and it’s to learn about the human body and its different limitations, things like surgery, well-being, and checkups, I think that's the best way to describe it. It's all around the health field.

These exhibits were donated probably 15 years ago, and they're all using old cheap PLCs and a lot of the hardware around it has been abused by 5 and 6 year olds hitting it, and really just doing anything they can to break it. So if you're a controls engineer, you're used to engineering against anything an operator can do to break a machine, well now think about anything a 5 or 6 year old can do to break a machine.

PS: That's not a bad threshold for evaluation for plants. It's a tough crowd, the kindergarten in in elementary school crowd there, they're hard on things, they want to touch and explore.

SP: And their mind works in a completely different way than yours does, right? So it's really interesting to see how they come in there and think of every possible way to take the wind out of your sails for engineering around them. There's such a variety of things that that we have going on in there. One specific example is, which seems like such an easy thing to work around, but they have these seven segment LEDs that are probably about, say, 3 inches by 2 inches large; not small, and not gigantic either. It's actually very hard to find drivers from a PLC to those seven segments without having a bunch of I/O.

So they don't want to add more I/O to the PLC, because that would make everything easier, just outputting a discrete for each segment, right? What we're doing instead is making custom circuit boards for those things, because what we really wanted is to provide them with a way that they could easily change these out in the future. We want to have this very modular and easy for the maintenance guys at the Exploreum to replace. Right now what they have is a culmination of years and years of Band-Aids and fixes, like I'm sure you might have seen in a lot of older plants.

Making full circle back to the co-op program, we have co-ops working on designing these integrated circuit boards as well as the enclosures that we're going to 3D print to put the circuit boards inside, and mount the seven segment LEDs to, which is to me a perfect co-op project. I’m really excited to get them working on this. It's a very good introduction to controls: you have this problem, and no one is telling you exactly how you're going to fix it, they just want it fixed. That's why I say it's the dream controls project: you have design freedom to do what you need.

PS: That is fascinating. It really is a mix of design – physical hardware printing, 3D printing the circuit board, and project management / project problem-solving. Are your co-ops excited about this?

SP: They're all-in on it for sure, as would I have been when I was a co-op.

PS: Well, I got a couple of 9 year olds and a 12 year old who take advantage of every local library program for 3D printing they can. When I tell them they can actually start printing circuit boards, it's going to blow their mind.

SP: Yeah, the circuit board portion of it, we’ll use laser etching to do that.

About the Author

Thomas Wilk | editor in chief

Thomas Wilk joined Plant Services as editor in chief in 2014. Previously, Wilk was content strategist / mobile media manager at Panduit. Prior to Panduit, Tom was lead editor for Battelle Memorial Institute's Environmental Restoration team, and taught business and technical writing at Ohio State University for eight years. Tom holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MA from Ohio State University

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