Brain drain hits home

Some customers come to rely too much on codes. No code, no problem. But with the downsized and retired talent that's gone from many of our factories, maybe they’ve just forgotten how to fix problems.

By Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief

Joe FeeleyWe try our best here to engage you in a discussion about the thoughtful application of new automation and control technologies for industrial machine systems. New technology solutions are often a lifesaver, but in some situations they carry some risk of placing the care and feeding of your machine outside the knowledge capabilities of your customers.

We've talked before about the effects that the reduction in customer engineering talent has had on you. And you've made it clear that it's a real problem.

I got a startling insight to that possibility this week. Even though it happened outside our industrial automation neighborhood, it stopped me in my tracks and made me realize it just as well could have, and maybe similar things are happening here.

I took my two-year old Ford Escape to the dealer's shop to check out some occasional torque-steer and low-level vibration that I know, having driven all-wheel drive vehicles for nearly 15 years, just isn't normal. Nothing serious yet, but something's up.

Carl the service manager carefully wrote down the symptoms I described, showing high levels of empathy, head nodding, and concern about my plight.

The first clue that this might be trouble came when Carl told me that his 4x4 expert--his only four-wheel-drive expert--might not be in that morning. Now, this is Ford Motor Co., not Freddy's Fast Fixup. Wouldn't you think there would be more than one guy that knew something about this? I'm told there are a fair number of Ford SUVs out there terrorizing our roads.

Later in the day comes the call. Carl tells me there's nothing wrong. He knows this "because the computer returned no bad codes."

Silence. Uncomfortable silence followed. I won't bother with the labored, not very friendly conversation that followed, but the very concept that something mechanical might actually be wrong--in light of "no bad codes"--was beyond Carl's grasp. I began to think that maybe they genuinely didn't know how to properly inspect the mechanicals. He kept talking about the codes and the help hotline they have back to the factory. And how they weren't as helpless as I seemed to think.

The problem is, at present, unresolved, and it got me thinking about our business.

You place a machine at a customer site complete with a nifty, downright slick set of self-diagnostics and troubleshooting tools that alert the operator or technician if something goes wrong.

But have some customers come to rely too much on the "codes?" No code, no problem? Are some customers forgetting they need to keep some skills in the plant, too? With the downsized and retired talent that's gone from many of those factories, maybe they have forgotten.

Have some of them lost their ability to logically find the mechanical faults and, maybe more importantly, the potential faults that don't lend themselves to sensor and software-based alerts?

If anything remotely like this is happening, then surely it's coming back to you to take care of. Unless you're one of the few who have a well-constructed after-sales support vehicle that covers its costs, you end up paying for those customer problems in time, money, and goodwill.

I'd like to hear from you about this. If it's happening anything like I've described, let's talk later about what we can do to fix it.

Oh, listen, if any of you have an idea about that torque-steer, let me know. I won't get very much satisfaction from making Carl smarter, but maybe at least I'll have helped identify a problem before it gets worse. Unlike some codes I've become familiar with.

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