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An empty brownfield facility that needs automation.

Overcoming the Top 7 Challenges of Brownfield Facility Automation

Hans Dittmar
Jun 30, 2023

Leveraging an existing industrial or manufacturing facility (a “brownfield site”) instead of establishing a new, purpose-built facility (a “greenfield site”) has its advantages. However, it’s prudent to proceed with caution. During planning, brownfield automation can hit snags if the facility’s limitations, upgrade requirements, and potential automation retrofitting challenges aren’t thoroughly considered.

What is brownfield automation? 

Brownfield automation is the process of replacing or retrofitting the legacy equipment, systems, and infrastructures of existing manufacturing environments with efficient automated technologies.

Sounds simple, right? However, at the time of the original brownfield development, the building design may not have included provisions for automation. Or, perhaps the level of prior automation is not on par with greenfield's modern communications, methods, and hardware. As a result, the potential pitfalls of implementing automation in an existing facility can quickly complicate matters.

7 Common Challenges of Brownfield Automation

Before deciding on automating a brownfield facility, weigh the impact of seven challenges that you will likely encounter:

  1. Brownfield Building and Systems
    Legacy systems and equipment in brownfield facilities may lack modern communication protocols or integration capabilities. Attempting to combine them with new automation technologies during brownfield redevelopment can be complex and require additional interfaces or custom solutions. Even adapting for wireless communications can be challenging when thick walls, heavy equipment, and sometimes even power lines interfere with signals.
  2. Compatibility Issues
    The existing equipment and building infrastructure may not be compatible with the latest automation technologies or standards. Connecting and communicating between different systems across the facility can be challenging if not impossible. Certain technology or equipment may need to be replaced entirely, causing cost overruns and delays.
  3. Limited Documentation
    Older facilities may have limited or outdated documentation regarding the existing facility, control systems, or remaining equipment. This lack of information can make it challenging to understand the intricacies of the facility and plan for automation effectively. Incompatible wiring standard changes can further exacerbate these issues.
  4. Skill Gaps and Workforce Transition
    Introducing automation may require that personnel learn or possess new, specific skill sets. Re-training or hiring skilled personnel who can operate, maintain, and troubleshoot complex automated systems is essential. However, workforce transition and change management can pose challenges. Employees are being asked to adjust to new roles and responsibilities as well as familiarize themselves with a different work environment.
  5. Safety Considerations
    Brownfield facilities might have outdated safety systems or protocols that need to be upgraded to align with modern automation standards. Ensuring the safety of personnel and the facility during the automation implementation process is crucial and may require additional investment.
  6. Cost and Return on Investment (ROI)
    Retrofitting automation into an existing facility can be more expensive than in a new, purpose-built facility. The cost of integrating different systems, upgrading infrastructure, and modifying hardware will impact the expected ROI of the automation project. Maintenance and support costs post-installation are also considerations. Maintenance contracts, spare parts, and potential downtime for maintenance of automation systems are all factors that must be weighed against ROI.
  7. Regulatory Compliance
    Compliance requirements and regulations may have evolved since the facility was initially established. Integrating automation while adhering to current regulatory standards and ensuring compliance can be complex and time-consuming. OSHA, building codes and permits, environmental considerations, etc., can present competing priorities to manage.
Automate a brownfield facility or start fresh?

Knowing the challenges that could lie ahead with brownfield automation should raise both awareness and questions. Due diligence is required when exploring a brownfield facility versus a greenfield build. An automation-worthiness assessment provides insights that help decision-makers better understand that addressing automation challenges requires:

  • Carefully coordinated and deliberate planning that requires committing time, teams, and resources
  • Collaboration between automation experts and existing facility stakeholders
  • A phased approach to implementation that minimizes disruptions and maximizes the benefits of automation

It’s a multidisciplinary process which can achieve desired results, but navigating the potential pitfalls can be problematic.

MARC: streamlined automation, ideal solution

Alternatively, leveraging automation that does not require any special accommodation or provisioning could be the ideal solution to brownfield facility challenges.

MūL's MARC autonomous robotic cart is the perfect option for a brownfield facility. This hold true even if more complex automation will be used in the future, because:

  • MARC requires no infrastructure changes or WiFi connectivity — implementation can happen in less than 10 minutes
  • MARC is extremely simple to program and operate — no complex software, map, and shared use interfacing setups
  • MARC’s EZ-GO Navigation™ eliminates lengthy user training with simple programming and intuitive operator panels
  • MARC promotes lean manufacturing principles and practices

Whether tackling brownfield automation or initiating automation adoption on the shop floor, MARC is the simple, safe, and cost-effective choice for manufacturers in many industries. See all of MARC’s features and benefits for yourself! Book your live interactive demo of MARC today.

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