The Essential Element that Your Material Handling System May Be Missing: Post-Installation Support

By Bill Vincent, Director, Tompkins Associates

Effective post-installation support for automated material handling systems is rare. That is pretty amazing when you consider how much damage a crashed system can do to a business-and the fact that such problems are largely preventable with the right planning and investment.

The rarity of arranging for ongoing support before a system is installed and turned on makes these crises all too common during "go-lives" and subsequent operations:

Unnecessary and prolonged system downtime. It is understandable when you couple new equipment with an inexperienced workforce, but it's a difficult pill to swallow for stakeholders who've put professional reputations and careers on the line to champion the investment in the system.

Disruptions to shipping schedules and increased labor costs. Client orders don't go away because the system is down (hopefully). That means late shipments, overtime to make up for lost time, or both.

Poor employee morale. High-pressure situations with a workforce new to a system that's experiencing problems bring a host of problems, including high turnover, accidents, and challenges from unions.

Catastrophic failure months or years after go-live. If a system ramps up production levels over a period of months or years, latent defects or degrading conditions due to lack of proper preventive maintenance (PM) often rear their heads later and bring down a system when it is near capacity. Of course, this is the worst time to lose your system.

Post-Installation Support Starts Pre-Installation

Properly planned and executed post installation support is an essential element of a system's operation from go-live through the end of its lifecycle. It ensures a smooth transition from the systems integrator to the maintenance and operations staff, then provides the appropriate level of external intervention to optimize the system's reliability indefinitely.

So why is it so rare? Because it's a "soft cost," post-installation support is often overlooked altogether during the proposal phase of a project. Integrators and equipment manufacturers are hesitant to flag it for fear that it will harm their competitive positions. Therefore it often ends up being a subject that is not broached until well into the project lifecycle-when additional available funding is scarce.

If you want your system and operations protected by excellent post-installation support, here is what you should think about during each phase of a project's lifecycle.

Before "Go-Live": The foundation for post-installation support is laid before go-live. Taking the following measures during design and installation will reap huge benefits downstream: In addition to formal operations and maintenance training, insist that your maintenance and operations personnel be brought into the project early. Maintenance technicians can frequently be involved in the installation and equipment checkouts (both static and dynamic testing). Operators can be involved in design reviews and walk-thrus of standard operating procedures.

Review maintenance and operator-training materials well in advance of the scheduled training. Ensure that it is comprehensive and includes "hands-on" time for both maintenance technicians and operators. The best training materials include pocket guides for frequently used procedures. The help desk should maintain the guides during follow-on support.

Define the spares that must be on-hand to support go-live and subsequent operations. Insist that critical spares and spares with long lead-times be identified.

"Go-Live": Regardless of how flawlessly the system implementation has been to this point, Murphy will be there to enforce his law on opening day.

As part of the support contract, insist on a minimum of two weeks of on-site system support from your integrator for each critical area of the system (major equipment technologies, control systems, and upper-level software systems such as a WMS).

An effective rule of thumb is to require that the integrator's technicians troubleshoot issues for the first week with your technicians observing. Switch the roles for the second week and require that your maintenance and IT personnel assume responsibility for troubleshooting with the integrator's technicians observing and providing guidance.

Transition to off-site support: When the punch list for system issues has been completed and the two-week on-site period ends, it is time to transition to off-site support. It is critical that you make sure there is a reliable method of contacting someone from the integrator's support department whenever you might experience a problem. Specify the hours in your contract. Be clear as to your expectations regarding phone, pager or Internet support. Do you expect a human to answer your call? What is the acceptable delay before a technical resource familiar with the portion of the system in question responds? How much downtime is acceptable before someone must be dispatched to the site? Avoid unpleasant surprises by insisting that your contract address these questions.

With a complex system, it is almost certain that several equipment and software vendors will be involved in the final solution. Require that the coverage the integrator provides for your operating hours extends to all vendors or you will encounter hidden costs or risk.

Finally, don't wait for a real problem to test the support system. Place dummy calls for "problems" with different components of the system to validate that you are getting the right responses in the right time frames. If commitments are not met, insist that the integrator maintain on-site support until the situation is resolved.

Off-site support: Once a successful transition has been completed, an integrator's support center should continue to add value to your operation in a number of ways:

Maximum troubleshooting effectiveness. The support center should use a tool such as a knowledge-based database that records all incidents associated with your system and the steps that were taken to resolve them. You should be able to check the status of any incident or request and get reports that detail problems with your system and their resolutions.

Spares replenishment and tracking. Many support centers will allow you to order spares for any component of your system directly from the centers, creating "one-stop shopping" for parts replenishment. The support center will help you evaluate warranty vs. non-warranty issues and will track all spares ordered for your system to aid in trend analysis for potential problem areas with your system.

System "check-ups." A support contract can include system check-ups, which are audits or preventive maintenance sessions conducted on a regular basis (frequently quarterly) to assist your maintenance departments in keeping up with requirements. Check-ups can offer an objective analysis of how effective a preventive maintenance program has been and can recommend improvements. This is perhaps the best insurance against "catastrophic failure."

Despite its being so often excluded, quality post-installation support is critical. Acknowledge this and budget for it at the outset, or you risk far more when the inevitable problems occur.

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