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Can legacy systems work as industrial IoT hardware?

Legacy hardware still has a large presence on manufacturing floors. It's possible to update some of that hardware to support IIoT deployments, but that process can be a challenge.

From an IT and security perspective, many industrial facilities contain antiquated hardware. This means legacy gear will be a prominent component of most organizations' industrial IoT deployments.

A proper evaluation process is critical to decide which legacy devices are suitable to work as IIoT hardware. Otherwise, a company might waste money, time and effort overhauling equipment that doesn't benefit from an upgrade.

Meanwhile, for cost and security reasons, it may not be practical or sensible to try to connect all legacy hardware to an IIoT network.

Challenges with legacy systems

Closely examine operational legacy systems at brownfield manufacturing sites.

First, determine whether you can update legacy hardware to support data capture and collection. Some manufacturers still use pen and paper to collect production data and then manually transfer that information to databases. This can take hours and produce inconsistent and unreliable results. Upgrades to digital data capture processes increase both speed and accuracy. They also enable companies to collect additional results about the performance of machines on the factory floor. Audit legacy devices to determine how much data you can collect from them.

If updates to legacy systems are possible, the next step is to consider the cost. Unlike IT department hardware, machines in a factory are not updated and upgraded every couple of years. Updates to such legacy equipment can cost millions of dollars and take months to complete. Widespread component shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate this challenge.

Security is also a priority when using legacy machines as industrial IoT hardware. The sensors and circuit boards that are bolted onto old machines do not contain much memory for security updates. This could require a lot of in-person maintenance for machines that can't easily link to the network.

Upgrade options and best practices

Upgrade options for legacy systems depend on the hardware type. Compared to analog devices, modern units with programmable logic controllers are easier to integrate into an IIoT network and set up for data collection.

Analog machinery must connect to sensors to derive information. If possible, use off-the-shelf components to link older gadgets to the IIoT network, as this is cheaper than installing custom-made boards.

Ensure the limited memory available on the boards can support the software that runs on legacy devices. This software must also connect with a company's network and monitoring protocols.

Third-party organizations can help retrofit legacy machines for IIoT deployments and reduce the workload for internal IT staff. This can be costly, however, as some agencies advocate for ripping and replacing as much of the old gear as possible. Evaluate, and negotiate with, multiple third-party firms to find the best option.

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