Putting Smart Tech on Old Machines

Manufacturers are deploying advanced-technology solutions on older factory equipment – but at what cost?

Most manufacturing equipment is designed and deployed to last at least a couple decades. In that timeframe, tons of important new technology is introduced. Many manufacturers seek ways to derive the benefits of advanced-manufacturing technology without having to replace existing equipment that remains in fine working order. Yet many of the existing machines were simply not designed to support new technology.

retrofitting, legacy equipment, advanced manufacturing, Automation Federation, IoT, big dataOne current example is connectivity. The Internet of Things (IoT) offers a wide range of benefits, but tying it to older machines is not easy.

“It is difficult to deploy IoT solutions alongside legacy equipment. The reason is that legacy systems were designed with particular requirements in mind, such as minimal data transferred at relatively long update rates,” Steve Mustard, cybersecurity chair at the Automation Federation , told Design News . “As a result, the infrastructure is not suited to the modern IoT and big data approach of large volumes of data transmitted in near-real-time.”

Shiny Buttons on Old Machines

Sticking new technology on legacy equipment can lead to problems when the older equipment isn’t structured to support data-driven tools. “Often, end-users try to bolt on these new solutions and they create a complex problem from a maintenance point of view,” said Mustard. “If the organization becomes dependent on the new IoT and big data solution – if they run their business based on the output of this equipment – they can find themselves unable to function if the complicated and unreliable infrastructure does not deliver.”

Mustard, who will address this topic in detail at the Atlantic Design and Manufacturing show in New York on June 13 in the session, Teaching Old Equipment New Tricks: Tips to Overcome Retrofitting Challenges , suggests a detailed consideration of all options, from investing in new equipment to reconsidering the need for new solutions. “The best approach is to identify the business need and design an end-to-end architecture that works, rather than trying to bolt-on IoT to a legacy environment,” said Mustard.

Cyber Security and Legacy Equipment

Cybersecurity is another critical consideration when connecting older equipment to the outside world. Much of this equipment was conceived to live in an air-gapped world. “Legacy equipment was not designed with security in mind. It was designed to be used in relatively secure facilities with everything self-contained,” said Mustard. “IoT solutions are all about enabling businesses to get real-time data from manufacturing systems in order to manage the business, communicate with suppliers and customers, and with machinery manufactures who are maintaining the production line.”

Mustard also noted that the IoT equipment itself may not be entirely secure. Manufacturers need to take a ground-up approach to cybersecurity. They need to assume none of the equipment comes with bullet-proof security. “IoT is not designed with security in mind – it is first and foremost about delivering the technical requirements as quickly as possible and making the solution easy to use,” said Mustard.

Cybersecurity functions must be considered independent of manufacturing needs and ease-of-use. “Security makes things more difficult and takes more time, so is a counter to manufacturing objectives,” said


The first big question must always be about exactly what actual benefit will be delivered by replacing a functional control system with a much more modern one. It is also a completely FAIR question, and if no clear answer can be provided, ask again. Of course ANY installation must be done correctly and with complete understanding of what it must deliver, and an understanding of how to achieve that target. Anything less will certainly be a failure.

One of the biggest benefits for machines my companies makes is getting rid of the human factor where folks forget how to run the equipment or new folks come in that aren't taught properly or some folks can't quit fiddling with stuff or some equipment needs seasonal/climate adjustments that humans have trouble doing.

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