Service—Here today, gone tomorrow

Embedded Intelligence columnist Jeremy Pollard, CET, says warranties are a necessary part of any business and that a good customer will most certainly get a better deal. What’s your policy?

By Jeremy Pollard, CET, Columnist

Embedded Intelligence“I’m so mad I could spit nails!” I’m not sure where that expression originates from, but my mum used it regularly when I was growing up, and, yes, it pretty much had everything to do with me.

More recently, I’ve been working with a customer on a major retrofit project that includes upwards of 60 DC drives and 30 AC drives, along with support products such as PLCs. That’s two million bucks worth of hardware from a reputable supplier, albeit with a marginal service record.

Warranties weren’t a problem, we were told. The project was to be completed over two years, but to get the project price, all of the product had to be bought and shipped at one time. The agreed upon warranty period was 18 months.

Normally, things should work out of the box, and most of these devices did. To the vendor’s credit, one drive was DOA after the normal 12-month warranty, and they replaced it without any issue. Though I wonder how a drive comes to a customer DOA these days, the product failure wasn’t the issue, the solution to that problem is—as you’ll soon discover.

There have been more issues since then. The latest was a loose, internal, power-wiring connection (assumed to be loose from the factory) that began to arc. One of those things that go boom in the night. The ensuing fire was doused quickly given a lack of combustible material in the panel.

Now, when I was with Allen-Bradley, I worked in the plant for a year to learn how things were done before I moved into the field. Air wrenches were used everywhere in that plant for assembly of things, just like that power connection. They had the air pressure controlled, and most had torque adjusters as well.

So, I knew that to find an internal power connection fried in that fashion would be very surprising.

This failure was after the 18-month warranty period. My A-B training told me this vendor’s sales department wouldn’t want bad press over this, and, if I explained the situation and showed proof of the failure, the drive would be replaced.

Hah! I couldn’t believe my ears when I was told that the failure couldn’t have been the result of a factory defect because they conduct full testing of their product.

They seemed to have forgotten about the dead drive from six months earlier. No amount of conversation that we had did anything to change their minds.

Once the 18 months were up, the vendor placed my customer’s account in the hands of a distributor. Not surprising, but they should have been told beforehand this was going to happen. Customer service—along with warranties—was now as DOA as the drive.

The customer decided it had no recourse but to repair the drive. He was further disappointed to discover the cost of the repair was more than the original cost of the drive. Wonder how that works, do you? So, the obvious, less painful choice was to buy a new drive, right?

The distributor quoted the drive. It seems he believed a captive audience could be taken advantage of. The price was twice that of the drive that had come direct from the vendor. Expletives not deleted followed.

Did the vendor do right by its customer? Warranties are a necessary part of any business. What’s your policy?

I talked to a few industrial OEMs, and it’s always a tough call. A good customer will get a better deal. If the original deal was a big one, the warranties are a special part of the purchase order.

Warranty work is an overhead for machine builders. It erodes the profit margins you enjoyed when you sold the original project. However, it’s a necessary evil and, if anything, is increasing in frequency and depth of coverage.

Customers always will screw something up on installation. I’ve known panels to blow off the wall from improper power wiring. Grounding issues cause many failures. PLC hardware has failed after minutes of operation because metal filings from the installation fell in between the covers and shorted-out components.

How would you know if that really happened, or how would you find out if it did? It’s a fine line.

While I think warranty terms should be firm, they should not be cast in stone. Special circumstances always surface and require good customer service to guide the solution.

The old saying, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar” rings true with me here.

Any of you been spitting nails recently? Tell us about it.

  About the Author
Jeremy PollardJeremy Pollard, CET, has been writing about technology and software issues for many years. Publisher of The Software User Online, he has been involved in control system programming and training for more than 20 years. He’ll be pleased to hear from you, so e-mail him at

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