Many factors beyond price and performance are involved for automation components
When purchasing automation products, it is not only about the performance and price, points out says Jonathan Bullick of KEB America. Buyers should also ensure they ask suppliers how long their product will be supported and where it is in its product lifecycle. Here, he explains exactly why this matters…
“On 11 March 2011, there was an earthquake about 40 miles east of Japan. The earthquake triggered a chain reaction that included a tsunami and what became known as the Fukushima disaster. As a result of this disaster, many chip fabrication facilities located in Japan went offline. Even after the disaster was contained and life continued, many of those chip fabrication facilities did not continue to manufacture the older chip sets. Instead, they chose to focus on producing the next-generation chips, rather than retool and continue making the old.
“Very abruptly, this sequence of events spelled the end of KEB’s COMBIVERT F4 range of drive controllers. The F4 was in production for almost 20 years before it was replaced by the COMBIVERT F5 model. This is good in the electronics world. However, outside of some limited parts stock, the product was no longer repairable, because KEB did not have access to integrated circuits used on its control boards. KEB was not the only company affected in this way by the Fukushima disaster.
“This brings up an interesting topic and the focus of this article – how long will my industrial automation components be manufactured and supported before they are made obsolete? This is an often overlooked aspect of vendor selection – namely, choosing vendors that plan for long product lifecycles and support OEM customers for many years.”
Cost of obsolescence
“Obsolescence is a major hidden risk when selecting automation components. The engineering time that is required to design and validate systems is very expensive. So, a premature ‘redesign’ shortly after a product launch carries both an opportunity expense and a capital investment expense. A ‘band-aid’ fix that is not thoroughly vetted can underperform and be unsafe.
“Components that are mechanical in nature are relatively easy to repair or replace. Motors can be rewound. Bearings can be replaced. Gears can be recut and adapter plates machined. However, integrated circuits (ICs), memory and microprocessors found in inverters, PLCs and HMIs are much more difficult to replace.
“Sometimes used or overstocked parts can be found online from websites such as eBay or Alibaba. However, the quality and longevity of the electronic parts are dubious. The option to swap out ICs for different models or brands is often not even an option, particularly for small volumes. Chipset dimensions, voltage levels, heat dissipation, and source code are a few obstacles that come to mind.”
The shiny new model
“There exists a pocket in the market of automation companies whose product is somewhere between industrial and commercial grade. Industrial because when the product is released it is a viable functioning product. The listed manufacturer performance specs are great, maybe the best on the market. And they are sold at a very competitive price, which sounds like great value and a no-brainer.
“Customers have told KEB that they have to ‘redesign’ the machine, because the two-year old PLC or HMI they purchased from another supplier is no longer available and there is no viable alternative. This is crazy and incredibly frustrating.
“Occasionally, one year later, that same PLC or HMI model has been replaced by a newer model using even newer chip sets. The drawback to this approach becomes supporting the older components in the field. Almost always, the burden to redesign to accommodate the obsolescence falls onto the OEM or the end user.”
“It is difficult to make decisions now while thinking 10 or 15 years into the future. As someone who has purchased consumer electronics, in my experience the product price, chip manufacturer and performance specs such as ‘clock speed’ are openly listed and very easy to compare. With the rapid technology advances in consumer electronics, it is fairly easy to quickly compare these specs and rank options.
“However, longevity and support are often more valuable than computing horsepower. Businesses do not (or should not) make decisions in the same way that consumers make decisions. End users make capital investment decisions to buy machinery and they expect that machinery to easily run for 10 years, 20 years or longer. Longevity and support are often more valuable than performance. Therefore, businesses should value machine designs and components that have long expected, supported lifetimes.”
“Companies do not always publish product lifecycle graphs, but hopefully their R&D and engineering teams make decisions to support a target product lifecycle. A product will go through various phases in its life. Most of its life will be in the ‘production’ phase where it is in active production. Eventually, it will be phased out in favour of a newer model. But even after production has ended, the product must continue to be supported and repaired – especially if the product is used in critical applications.”
“In general, KEB strives to design products for at least a 10-20 year lifecycle. The actual lifecycle of some products might end up being more. For example, the COMBIVERT F5 drive controller is still in active production and the product is around 20 years’ old, although it has had a couple of facelifts throughout the years.
“The actual lifetime varies by product and usually ends up being determined by the IC and component manufacturers. Companies such as Intel and ARM have many different chips, but they select a few models that they guarantee an extended lifetime and support. This allows manufacturers of industrial equipment to ensure that their product will be supported for a minimum number of years. Selecting components for longevity early in the design process has a large impact on lifetime. Other features, such as using an SSD for memory, can also work to extend the operating lifetime.
Develop a plan for upgrading
“Obsolescence can be delayed, but never avoided altogether. For sure, customers should receive notice when a product has entered a ‘legacy’ or ‘mature’ stage. This is when the product is no longer being actively produced or developed, but still supported for replacements and repairs. This is the time that the user should begin to proactively develop a plan for upgrading. If a product is abruptly made obsolete, a viable alternative can quickly be implemented. In addition, customers should be notified of a ‘last-time buy’ opportunity where they can strategically purchase parts to support their transition plan.
“To summarise, engineering redesigns are time-consuming and costly. But component obsolescence will occur and cannot be avoided entirely. However, manufacturers of automation products can lessen the blow by designing for a long product lifecycle and giving adequate notice before obsoletion. When making a buying decision, it is not only about the performance and price. Ensure you ask your supplier how long the product will be supported and where it is in its product lifecycle.”