If you are running a facility using Phoenix Contact VLC, you know you are about to hit a big obsolescence obstacle: VLC is incompatible with anything past Windows 7, and Microsoft will stop supporting Windows 7 in January 2020. So what do you do if your facility runs on VLC – but you’re not in a position to completely reprogram your facility?
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This was the challenge that we solved for a customer earlier this year. This textile manufacturer has several lines that run on VLC. They were beginning to have hardware issues with increasing frequency. They couldn’t continue with a line that stopped intermittently. But at the same time, completely converting their line to PLC-based controls was an out-of-the-question expense. Instead, Patti Engineering developed a unique stopgap solution that will allow the customer to run their current facility for another 5-10 years at about half the cost of a full upgrade.
The customer was being crushed from both ends with this issue. From the production side, hardware errors were happening more and more frequently, which would cause the machine to stop. As hardware, like the head unit, begins to fail, the program fails to run because it cannot “see” that particular hardware or device. So, as an operator would boot up the machine, nothing would happen. “Nothing’s happening” is not exactly the report anyone wants from a production line. Incidentally, “nothing’s happening” is also challenging to troubleshoot, which was leading to the lines being down for significant time.
From the IT side, the operating system was quickly reaching obsolescence. If you’re not familiar with Phoenix Contact VLC, it runs on a PC (personal computer) rather than a PLC (programmable logic controller). VLC is being phased out, and all of the versions available must run on a 32-bit operating system. The problem is that Windows 7, released 10 years ago in 2009, is the last operating system (OS) to support 32-bit. And next year, Windows will stop supporting it, which means no more security updates. The IT team, of course, wanted to keep the facility safe from cyber security issues and was pushing to upgrade all PCs to a supported OS.
The first step we took was to upgrade their older VLC system to the newest version available. While this version will also be obsolete soon, it is quite a bit newer than the software that was installed, and it will sustain the system longer. But here’s the game-changer: instead of running the controls on a PC on the floor, the controls are now running on a virtual machine on a server. A virtual machine (VM) is like a duplicate of a computer, running independent of the hardware.
First, the programming is no longer dependent upon the hardware. We can run this program on any server, and the customer is not tied to whatever PC they can get that still has Windows 7 on it. Second, we have a clean copy of this program so there’s a virtual backup. If there are ever any issues, we can simply replace the virtual machine with the clean copy. While the customer has not experienced any issues to warrant this yet, we even have the ability to do this change remotely via VPN. This eliminates the cause of most of their downtime (unreliable hardware) and dramatically simplifies recovery (via backup) if any issue does arise.
In addition to upgrading VLC and running it virtually, we upgraded every head unit and I/O card. For this line, there were over 100 remote I/O racks. Upgrading this hardware ensures that the system continues to run smoothly. We also upgraded the PC on the floor, now that it was no longer responsible for running the controls. The PC on the line is used more like an HMI (human machine interface) to see that process or to make adjustments. It was upgraded to a very new, touchscreen device for easy operator use.
While this customer was calling a couple of times each month due to a stopped line before, they have not had any issues since install. Their line has been running smoothly. They have a fully functional line for a fraction of the cost of a complete controls conversion.
Since this was a virtual machine, the installation was simplified because the Patti team worked with the customer’s IT team to virtually test the programming before installation and commissioning. Because of this, we were able to complete the commissioning and debugging in less than a week.
While the solution is unique, the challenge is not that uncommon. If you are staring down the Windows 7 end-of-life deadline with VLC still in your facility, Patti Engineering has a solution ready for you.
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