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Successful Control System Modernization

4 Best Practices for Successful Control System Modernization

Manufacturers produce the products that our communities need. In today’s market of doing more with less, manufactures are often required to extend process system lifecycles longer and longer to avoid the time and expense of a greenfield project to replace the systems. What remains is an aging infrastructure that was built at a time when industrial automation was in its infancy. Weighed against new systems, these existing processes often have the same underlying mechanical technology but are generations behind in terms of controls and automation technology.

The most obvious illustration of this is systems that have obsolete electrical components and legacy software that is no longer actively supported by original manufactures. As we move into Industry 4.0, the old standard of each individual machine having an isolated “island” of automation is being replaced by more integrated automation systems that communicate to each machine, sharing and creating significantly more data than even 15 years ago. With this added data is the desire to connect the plant floor data to business systems. More and more facilities want production orders to come down from ERP systems to process controls, producing real-time consumption data that is utilized to reduce inventory. To stay competitive, many facilities have made the business decision to modernize their legacy machine and controls systems. Typically, this can be done at a fraction of the cost and time of a greenfield project.

Modernizing a Control System

A control system upgrade can bridge all these gaps by integrating mechanically sound process systems with a modern automation system. At a minimum these projects consist of substantial replacement of obsolete components, sometimes even retaining the original PLC logic. These projects can also be expanded to include high level integration of different machines, adding new machines to an existing system, ERP integration, and ground-up re-writes of logic and operator screens.

Modernization projects are known to be complex, especially because engineers are required to work inside an existing framework as opposed to building a system from the ground up. There may be missing documentation or drawings. Additionally, some field modifications may not be included in the drawings. Minimizing production downtime is a significant concern, so the implementation window to get the system back in production is often small.

A successful modernization project considers these factors and others during the initial phases of the control system upgrade. Key to any project is developing a deep understanding of the existing system. This is paramount to implementing the upgrade without breaking what is currently in place.


As a Senior Project Manager at NorthWind, I have implemented many modernization projects throughout my career. In this time, I have found a few tried and true practices that lead to a successful control system upgrade.

Engineers on-site

Customer/Project Management Planning

When modernizing any system, a collaboration between customer and Project Management is a must. Through this collaborative approach, a forward-looking plan is made to include functionality, risk avoidance, down time reduction, migration solutions, project phasing, etc. to ensure the project scope is clearly outlined and understood.

Design Trip

There is a misconception that modernization will “break” the current system and lead to significant downtime. Conducting an initial design trip is instrumental for designing a project that takes into consideration the existing system and its functionality and designing a system that will meet the customers scope and needs.

Before any modernization takes place a review of pre-existing equipment, electrical, design and functionality is conducted. Any existing drawings and documentation are also thoroughly reviewed. In the event there are no drawings of the existing system, a new set will be created.

Electrical Install

Safety Considerations

There are misconceptions involving safety considerations: Many people think that safety guidelines are grandfathered in by the date of the original mechanical equipment installation. However, on any substantial electrical modernization project, safety circuits and functionality need to be reevaluated.

Electrical Installation

One of the biggest concerns with control system modernization is the amount of time it will take for installation and requalification. Working with an industrial electrician with the expertise to understand how to work within schedule constraints and provide creative, custom solutions to meet outage windows is critical. Installation can be done in phases, during production downtimes, or any other number of solutions to keep downtime at a minimum.

Benefits of Modernization

Updating hardware and software with better automation control systems can improve plant performance, increase productivity, improve communication between the process information and business systems, provide useful production data, provide alerts to improve response times, increase plant system security and perform system diagnostics.

With NorthWind you can achieve an effective modernization project that manages safety, health and environmental risks, get documentation for field devices in the system, and be assured of a more efficient, consistent and optimized operation, with the support of the system for years to come. Contact us today to talk about your system.

Blake Bennett, Project Manager

Blake Bennett, P.E.

Senior Project Manager