Upgrading Old Equipment

What does this do?

When I was on my own I often got requests quote the rebuild of old and obsolete equipment. There were various factors at work to make companies want to do this: inability to obtain spare parts due to discontinued components, advances in technology allowing more efficient controls, chronic problems with hardware and maintenance, or even the unexpected availability of capital funding.

Often I would spend a half day or so going over the existing equipment to figure out how it worked, what had to be replaced versus what the customer may want in the way of bells and whistles, and estimating just how much time it would take to do the job. In all of the applications I looked at over the years, none of them ended up being a very positive experience for either my company or the customer. Generally there was little if any documentation for the existing machine and the customer was generally wanting to rebuild rather than replace the equipment for cost reasons. The existing hardware was sometimes partially usable, but the cost of taking everything apart and reassembling it as well as the time it took to “reinvent the wheel” usually made this not economical for either party.

There were exceptions to this of course. If the customer was willing to completely replace the controls and was simply reusing some of the mechanical parts it could usually work out well. I had a good relation ship with the Pplant manager and engineers at a metal forming plant in Athens, Tennessee and we put together several successful systems this way. This may have been more a result of good relationships and open discussions about costs than the actual task at hand.

At the same time the SmartBench concept arose out of a similar situation. The customer had about ten poka-yoke machines that were build specifically for a certain product. When automotive models change the tooling is often changed out completely, but in this case the customer also needed to change ot the controls. Each component had a pilot light directly related to a specific sensor and a program built around sequencing a specific assembly process. Not only this but the customer needed to continue operating the machinery right up until the product changeover, so they wanted us to come in for 4-8 hour sessions between production shifts and rebuild the equipment in stages. When I did the math on this there was no way that this was economical for either party, so I presented a concept for a station that could replace any station in the plant while it was being retooled/rebuilt. It turned out that the SmartBench actually cost about what the machine it was replacing had new, while rebuilding and retooling the machines would cost between 1/2 and 3/4 of the original cost.

We never did end up either selling any SmartBenches into the plant or rebuilding the existing machines. The customer found a closer, cheaper supplier and did some of the work in house.

It was also very risky and difficult to accurately price the jobs. Only when we were very hungry/desperate did we even attempt to quote these jobs, and as I mentioned, it never worked out well for us when we won the bid.


Electrical Engineer and business owner from the Nashville, Tennessee area. I also play music, Chess and Go.

1 Comment on “Upgrading Old Equipment

  1. Frank,

    Great Article !!. I’m am trying to follow in your foot steps, so to speak at least in regards to the article above. I have roughly 2 years PLC experience, programming, some designing of control panels I currently work for a OEM I’ve been trying to form a buisness plan / model for myself to try and go on my own and start an controls and automation company, albeit a small one. One of the points of model ws to offer cotrol panel upgrades for machines, now I’d would try to focus on a specific industry , specifically the printing and converting industry ( Web Tension, Slitting , ect ) at least for now. I was thinking to do some reasearch popular machines used in the industry that would benefit from updated controls, .. Obsolete controls, but mechanically sound. Based of your article above, In your Honest Opinion , Is this a sound plan, or would you recommend otherwise.

    _Best Regards,