Fit for the future

From “retro” to fit for the future

What to do when an asset comes of age? It’s a question that every manufacturer faces at some point. From retrofitting and refurbishing to remanufacturing, many options exist alongside replacement. These options offer more than just a facelift – they help futureproof your business.

The oldest machine in the plant is a piece of trusted technology that has served you well over the years but now it’s showing its age and has started letting you down. You can’t afford to stop everything to fix it so frequently. Worse still, you begin to wonder if you can still get the spare parts you need.

Is it time to replace it with a new machine with more modern technology? Or is there a way you can bring life back into the old machine and bring it up to date? “For our customers, what matters is often not whether a machine is new or old, but how high its operating costs are,” says Martin Staeger, Head of Service Transformation at Bühler. The annual cost of maintaining, overhauling, and repairing equipment increases over time. Investing in scheduled maintenance extends life, and Bühler can help there with the right parts, techniques, tools, and procedures, as well as service agreements. But end of life considerations will at some point become a big pain point.

It could be parts, productivity, or new technology that drives the decision. “Many machines have local control. The life cycle of these systems is often much shorter than that of the hardware. It may be that the electronic components are no longer supplied, so you have to replace the control system,” Staeger says. “Or it may be that new technology has become available and you want to know if you can retrofit it into your existing installed base of assets to make them more productive.”

The Rs in circular economy

This is where the Rs come in – not just Replace, but also Refurbish, Remanufacture, and Retrofit. In a way, there is nothing new about these – people have always fixed and repaired machines. But today these ideas are gaining new significance as they not only save money but also resources, contributing to the circular economy.

The benefits that can be achieved include lower energy usage, better yield, and increased productivity. All of these also have an impact on the operation’s environmental footprint. “Take die casting. Together with one of our customers we calculated that overhauling a die-casting machine can lead to 70 percent energy savings, and reusing the materials saves around 75 percent of CO2e compared to the production of a new machine of comparable size,” explains Staeger.

And the knock-on effects flow through the value chain. You are not only increasing the sustainability of your own operations but, in turn, helping to make your customers’ products more sustainable. Whether refurbishing roller mills to extend their life, retrofitting new equipment to accommodate new ingredients, upgrading a machine to introduce a new process, or automating a complete plant, the beneficial impact can be both on the environment and the business’s bottom line.

Fast forward

Remanufacturing can extend the product life cycle, reduce material and energy consumption, and lower waste generation and costs. In contrast to refurbishing, which involves restoring an old machine to an almost-like-new state and fixes minor issues, with remanufacturing worn parts are restored to a condition that is equivalent or superior to the original in terms of quality, performance, and functionality.

“This is what we do in die casting at our workshops in Brescia in Italy, Michigan in the US, and Wuxi in China,” says Staeger. “We take the machine completely apart, inspect all the components, clean them, possibly replace some, reassemble it, and sometimes also improve the control system.”

What threatened to become a hunk of scrap metal is working again, playing its part in the overall system. But more than that, process steps are automated and the machine from yesteryear is brought into the digital era. It can communicate with the machines around it and with you, providing data insights and transparency to support your decision-making and action-taking. It enables you to do things quicker, smarter, and with a more consistent quality.

A step on the digitalization journey

“Digital transformation can seem a tall order for hardware that is sometimes decades old,” Staeger explains. “But it is a step worth considering even if your legacy machines generate a lot of money because they are fully paid off and serve a particular niche. The potential is huge.” Uli Homann, Corporate Vice President and Distinguished Architect (cloud & AI) at Microsoft, views digitalization and cloud/edge computing as key to tackling two big challenges that many industries face: one is the talent shortage and the other is managing multi-location operations.

“To address the talent shortage, we need higher levels of automation,” explains Homann. “That requires thinking through how we take existing and new capabilities and bring them into an end-to-end cloud-based management model with the necessary controls, so that the industrial environment remains safe and secure, but at the same time does more work with fewer resources.”

To address the second challenge – operations running in different locations – used to mean relying on the local experts on site. But as business pressure becomes more real-time, Homann says that the senior management at headquarters need to be able to see for themselves in real-time how their factories are running. “The good news is that we are seeing advances on the enabling side. Satellite capabilities and 5G are becoming ubiquitous and affordable, making communications with even remote factories much easier. Businesses can now mix a distributed edge computing environment with centralized management, enabling local monitoring of the business process and machine health as well as global insights.”

Digital transformation is a step worth considering even if your legacy machines generate a lot of money. The potential is huge.

Martin Staeger, Head of Service Transformation at Bühler

Bühler Insights is the groundbreaking cloud platform initiated by Bühler in 2018, utilizing Microsoft’s robust Azure platform. This platform is the cornerstone for supporting customers in fully leveraging the potential of digitalization to enhance their operations. “We provide the technology and work with companies like Bühler who help their customers ensure that the data is collected and transported into the cloud securely for advanced analytics and AI,” Homann explains. “If we can work with Bühler and our joint customers to think through, end to end, how a digitalized process works, that will enable them to bring new capabilities into their industrial environment very quickly.”

The biggest worry any factory owner or manager has when considering such a change is that it will prevent them from meeting their targeted output. Homann understands this. “Any interruption or interference to their processes is a problem. They need assurance that whatever changes are being made to optimize their processes are applied in a way that the factory keeps on delivering and does not impact the output,” he says. 

The second biggest worry is whether the retrofitted or remanufactured machine will perform as expected. Bühler is well aware that this is top of mind for its customers.

“We know this is a worry, so we don’t just carry out an upgrade, we provide the support to make sure the customer achieves the outcome they are looking for through the years of operation,” says Staeger. “Through our services agreements we collaborate with our customers throughout the life cycle of the assets, whether it is to provide remote support services, regular inspections, or frequent process data review by our process experts. Such agreements can even be carried out as an Outcome as a Service package, where we provide professional project management and engineering with very high standards. It is one of our key differentiators. Our aim is to put the customer’s mind at rest.”

Bühler’s professional footprint of project execution teams, engineering, and automation teams enables it to support its customers around the world and to consult them holistically on process improvements. “We look at the full process and we have the expertise – we know how a production process should run and what product quality looks like. We base our recommendations on thorough assessments of the customers’ assets and processes and come up with a feasible concept, which could be an upgrade or a different service.” 

Where the journey leads next

Just selling data is easy – but it leaves customers alone to take decisions. “We look at analytics together and advise you, or we go further and help you to reduce energy consumption. We can install sensors and connect your system to Bühler Insights, and based on what we see, we can advise you and train your people,” says Staeger.

Key to this is bringing together Bühler’s process expertise, globally available service business, and knowledgeable people with digitalization, upgrade capabilities, and a full portfolio of services. “We collaborate with our customers to provide a customized solution to meet their needs and get the best out of their assets throughout the life cycle. We are investing a lot in digitalization because we know that if we put that into the mix, we can help our customers better,” Staeger says.

Mercury Mercury Digitalization and automation enable customers to streamline processes and increase efficiency.
To address the talent shortage, we need higher levels of automation. That requires thinking through how we take existing and new capabilities and bring them into an end-to-end management model with the necessary controls.

Uli Homann, Corporate Vice President and Distinguished Architect (Cloud & AI) at Microsoft

The journey doesn’t stop here. Homann believes that the next opportunities will emerge from greater use of AI, and that this will change the way we think about applications and processes. “AI will enable human operators to work intelligently with the system. The system becomes an intelligent node, and the human operator just has to say what they need,” he says. “We will see more intelligent and more human-friendly systems. And this is important when you remember the talent shortage. We need to help the people who are there to do the job faster, more easily, and more securely.”

Managing globally dispersed assets will also get easier. “With increased connectivity, businesses will be able to think of their remote factories and corporate headquarters as a single environment, continuously connected and talking to each other, sharing data, understanding what’s going on,” explains Homann. “Bring in AI and you can react to market, technology, or process changes much faster.” Good grounds to consider giving your ageing plant or machinery more than just a facelift.


Find out more about Bühler’s upgrade, retrofit, and remanufacturing services on our website.


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