After-sales support moves into mainstream

Accelerating technical changes, diversifying applications, and shrinking in-house expertise has forced end users to demand greater levels of support from their builders and suppliers. Joined at the hip? Just about.

By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

10 Year AnniversaryAfter-sales support used to be optional, almost a novelty. Now, it’s frequently an expected, essential requirement. Many machine builders that used to sell equipment and basically forget about it evolved over the past 10 years as a result. Though they’ve always done plenty of handholding initially, depending on installation complexity, commissioning, configuration, training and operation, builders previously looked forward to leaving end users alone once an application was up and running. No longer.

Accelerating technical changes, diversifying applications, and even shrinking in-house expertise forced end users to demand greater levels of support from their builders and other suppliers. Joined at the hip? Just about.

Far Sighted
The biggest blessing in after-sales support has been the emergence of effective remote monitoring. It once was considered a bit risky because problems might be missed by trying to diagnose them at a distance, but machine builders increasingly troubleshoot operations and performance of users’ applications, and more routinely fix configurations and other problems from afar via Internet or other online methods. Some have embraced these remote capabilities, while others are still starting and struggling to implement them.

One early adopter, Jim Larson, an electrical engineer at Sun Automation, reported in Control Design’s second issue, "Fast Impressions: Servo Control System Speeds Printing Machine Design," Oct. ’97, that his team initially planned to use a proprietary local area network to link sections of 30 operator interface (OI) screens. However, Sun decided to use Ethernet because it would allow the company to use one network for remote OI monitoring and control, as well as modem capability for diagnostics. Sun reported this would allow it to view screens from any OI system on the Ethernet, and troubleshoot customers’ equipment at any location worldwide via the Internet.

Staffs Shrink
Real growth in pre- and after-sales support also was ignited in the late 1990s by downsizings that crippled many user engineering departments. This put many machine builders’ design engineers more directly in touch with customer engineers at earlier stages of projects, and let users put more design responsibility on suppliers.

"Sixty percent of our business is overseas," said Mike Strahm, engineering product manager for computer controls at Wenger Manufacturing, in that same article. "Remote diagnostics are essential to our service capabilities, and while locals can deal with many customer hardware issues, we often have to get into the machine program code from Sabetha, Kansas, via modem." Scott Heins, sales manager at Air Power Logic Systems, added, "We know that after-sale service is the key for repeat business. It’s what keeps customers. We’d just lose business otherwise."

Misunderstandings Migrate
Galloping technical advances over the past 10 years fueled an upsurge in misunderstandings, as users tried to implement unfamiliar products and as suppliers sought to explain them. In the "Tech Support—For What It’s Worth" editorial, June/July ’99, one vendor reported that, "One of the things I get to do is read the instruction manual to customers. Well over 80% of the technical support calls we receive are questions that could be answered by reading the manual or with basic technical knowledge any user should have. The remaining 20% are real toughies, but we like those because they keep us sharp."

Monitoring Multiplies
Though they appreciated the potential advantages of remote monitoring, most users prudently stopped short of trusting it for control functions. "Control of robots via a web browser violates international safety standards," said Joe Campbell, at the time Adept Technology’s marketing vice president, in the "What Network Works for You?" cover story in Feb/Mar ’00. "But web-based monitoring of controls, control activity, software, and displays is a useful troubleshooting tool. Campbell saw a major limitation in the availability of web-connectivity on the plant floor. In the same article, Jerry Koch, CTC Parker Automation’s software product manager, warned that, "Use of the Internet for this purpose is intriguing, but we see many IS/IT managers still restricting access to their internal systems from OEMs and other outsiders."

Likewise, early adopters were unsure about payback from remote monitoring, even if plant-floor engineers and IT people could cooperate. "As important as all this is, the ROI figures still are somewhat hazy," said Jay Grassel, Data Science Automation’s engineering VP, in "Web Closes the Loop on Real-Time Information," Apr/May ‘00. "The cost of a full-time web connection often isn’t well considered. Sometimes just a phone line or even intermittent-browse capability are preferable, depending on the processor’s function."

Support Still Soaring
However, once they grew more comfortable with using remote diagnostics for after-sales support, more users implemented it in increasingly diverse ways. "Downtime can cost CNC users thousands of dollars per hour," said Al Julian, marketing manager for punch/plasma fabricating machines at W.A. Whitney Co., in our "Tending the Flock" cover story, Sept ’01. "Our customers need and expect immediate response. With remote access, we can provide that. No field-service person could arrive as quickly as we can dial into a machine."

In the past few years, support via web and Internet-based methods seems to have grown exponentially. In "Capture Machine Data in the Web," Mar ’03, Jim McAndrew, control technologies director at Fluid Air, reported, "For us, web technology is about getting information out to a customer’s larger corporate audience to help improve their business. By making their machines into web servers and serving their data in a web-enabled format, we can offer users a solution without forcing them to invest in new software."

In "Facts and Fears About Web Browsers," Mar ’04, Mark Gentry, controls and communications manager at Samuel Jackson Inc., speculated that, "In another 10 years, most industrial control communications will be via Ethernet. I say this because, while the cost of hardware is greater, the labor savings more than make that cost." Gary Cash, control engineering VP for FKI Logistex Automation, added in his OEM Insight column, "When PLCs Aren’t Enough," May’ 04, that, "A decision to use a web server in a PC-based system, instead of communicating over a local area network, makes it virtually free of charge to data share with multiple PCs."

Francois Broche, chief controls engineer at Southern Engineering & Automation, added in the "Be Everywhere" cover story, Aug ’05, "The simplicity of remote condition monitoring over the Internet gives us an edge over a standalone machine. It lets us offer an affordable service contract because we can proactively keep the machine operating without flying to the customer’s location. It’s better marketing through science."

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