Automation IIoT

Flexible Modernization: A Roadmap

EP Editorial Staff | May 1, 2023

Digital technologies help plants achieve better data management while retaining legacy infrastructure.

By Aaron Crews, Emerson

Today’s operations teams face more challenges than ever before as management focuses on efficiency to realize maximum value from every minute of production. Moreover, a new global focus on sustainable manufacturing means plant personnel need to manage emissions, energy use, and waste to support sustainability goals and compete as suppliers to other organizations pursuing net-zero initiatives. All of these concerns pale in comparison to the need to maintain operation safety and security, even as plant assets move to legacy status.

A key commonality among all these initiatives is a core need for critical data. To reach these goals, teams need to acquire useful, reliable data and deliver it to the right people at the right time. Process information and diagnostics must be immediately available to help teams identify opportunities to squeeze more performance out of their systems. But good data is dependent on good instruments, and most plants were built with far too little instrumentation.

Modernization is the solution, but few plants can afford the time and capital for a full, manual rip-and-replace modernization—a strategy that might cause more problems than it solves. Fortunately, today’s technologies are helping teams digitally transform their modernization projects to quickly, easily, and affordably create a smart, flexible, and expandable infrastructure that supports the instrumentation and data democratization necessary to compete in the modern global marketplace.

Digital tools 

Today’s digital tools transform the way teams approach modernization projects. Instead of spending years replacing everything before seeing benefits, teams are instead integrating powerful digital solutions as needed to replace or expand existing infrastructure, delivering the flexibility necessary to solve business problems.

The very first stage of modernization is project planning and design, which can be a high hurdle, especially for lean teams. Quality engineering work typically requires a deep bench of experienced personnel to properly develop and use the tools necessary to collate, comprehend, standardize, and convert control-system data. Much of this work is traditionally manual and error prone, requiring significant added effort for double-checking and validating work.

Today, however, many teams are digitizing the project engineering stage of modernization with smart tools. Instead of custom conversion tools, forward-thinking teams use artificial intelligence and machine-learning tools to reduce time spent engineering and eliminate the errors of manual data conversion. These tools scan legacy control-system code and pattern match it against an engineering library built across thousands of previously successful control-system modernizations. The tool generates a comprehensive project report to show how much code conversion can be automated versus how much must be built by hand or re-engineered. Instead of being surprised late in the project, teams instead know from the beginning what the project will look like and can break it into the phases that will work best to meet their goals.

I/O-agnostic solutions, including Emerson’s DeltaV IO.CONNECT, let teams take advantage of the capabilities of modern control systems without needing to replace their legacy I/O. Courtesy Emerson

Easier I/O

Another critical element of digitally transforming modernization is making existing I/O more flexible, for example with electronic marshalling. This technology empowers modernization teams to use Ethernet infrastructure hardware to add I/O anywhere they need it. 

Whether teams need to put I/O in a local cabinet or a remote enclosure far from the control room, they can simply install the hardware and connect it to the control network. The I/O technology matches with existing wiring, providing access to smart infrastructure without replacing existing cable, saving 5% to 10% of project costs. Teams can also reuse existing cabinets, saving an additional 10%.

Electronic marshalling is also helpful when teams do not have drawings for a location where they need new I/O, as the team can simply locate a place where they do have reliable drawings and terminate the new I/O there.

To further simplify I/O without overhauling the plant’s entire infrastructure, many modernization teams are turning to I/O-agnostic interfaces to lower capital costs and speed conversion. An I/O-agnostic interface is installed between new controllers and legacy I/O. With the interface in place, modernization teams can install the control system of their choice, while leaving legacy I/O wiring, terminations, and infrastructure in place. 

Once the new control system is installed, the team can immediately begin reaping the benefits of modern control best practices, such as better human-machine interfaces, alarm management, and easier integration of wireless sensing technologies. The DCS and legacy PLCs are no longer a roadblock to efficient, effective data transfer.

Connecting data 

As teams implement their strategic digital transformation, many will want to bring all data, regardless of source, together into a common platform. Obviously, this becomes easier when everything has been modernized into a single system. Until that happens, many teams are taking advantage of digital data platforms that collect data from disparate PLCs, DCSs, and other systems across the enterprise. These digital solutions collate and standardize data in one location, helping teams more easily visualize, historize, and perform calculations on that data, and then distribute it to other parts of the organization.

Digital data software platforms, such as Emerson’s DeltaV Console Connect, combine data from a wide variety of systems into a single, intuitive dashboard for better, faster decision making. Courtesy Emerson

Unlock immediate returns

Tomorrow’s boundless automation architecture will seamlessly integrate operations, making it possible to move data quickly and efficiently across the enterprise and achieve peak optimization. Harnessing those capabilities will require a robust and flexible automation foundation to drive increased performance and operational excellence.

However, operations and maintenance teams can’t spend years replacing everything in a plant before they begin to see benefits. A $15-million return ten years from now is far less appealing than $1 million in annualized benefits starting next year—a goal the right digital modernization technologies can achieve. 

By taking advantage of the digital technologies to drive faster and easier modernizations today, teams can quickly implement the flexible foundational elements necessary to move up the technology stack. Those fast successes will deliver needed performance improvements, while providing fast financial returns to subsidize gradual infrastructure replacement. A digitalized modernization strategy provides the best of both worlds—improved control today and preparedness for the future, all without the need to rip and replace legacy infrastructure. EP

Aaron Crews is Global Director of Modernization at Emerson, St. Louis ( His current focus is enabling technologies that deliver modern automation value at reduced cost/risk. He has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Texas A&M Univ. and an MBA from The Univ. of Texas.


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