To Upgrade Software or Not

How Do Machine Builders and System Integrators Deal With Software Changes?

By Katherine Bonfante

Who loves software updates? I sure don't. When there is a small software update, I don't mind it, as long as the change is completely seamless. You know what I'm talking about. There is software that can make your machines run faster and smoother without changing anything about the way you interact with the interface. And then there are the times when the new features completely change the way you do things, and on those occasions the software upgrade just sucks — at least at first. Once you get used to the change, you fall in love with the software or the equipment all over again.

Take your mobile device. I'm sure you generally accept app upgrades without thinking about what could possibly change. Yet, once the device powers up and things look very different, you start cursing and wondering why the developer who designed the new software just messed things up for you.

This made me wonder how machine builders and system integrators deal with software changes. You might even request changes on your own equipment. But how do you feel when the delivered product doesn't work as expected? It still does what you want it to, perhaps — it just takes 10 more steps.

In "What Really Happens When You Update Software and Machinery," T.J. McDermott, senior project engineer at integrator Systems Interface, says that keeping up with computer, machinery and software updates can be complicated. For starters, industrial systems usually last decades before any upgrades are required, but the computers that support your machines' PLC, HMI and safety systems are built to last only three years. Because of this disconnect between the machine systems and the software, industry professionals are on a never-ending race, trying to keep up with current software that talks to perfectly working, but outdated machinery. Virtualization software companies might have the solution, he says.

A Control Design cover story from several years ago — in which Rich Merritt, senior technical editor at the time, reported on how difficult it can be to migrate control systems — still rings true today. In "Good Migrations," Merritt says that system migrations can lead to an improved return on investment for your customers, but the journey is always a tough one. We all wish the systems could work perfectly forever, but the truth is they just don't. You could just select a few key elements to upgrade and migrate slowly, or you could grab an entire new package and run with that. Either way, you need to know what your best option is before migrating your control systems.

Change is hard and since we are creatures of habit, adapting to changes can be difficult for us. But we (I) have to remember that sometimes software upgrades actually do make our lives easier.