The Perfect Maintenance Storm

As the skilled workforce ages and with few recruits to replace them, manufacturers are facing difficult decisions about how to maintain their automated systems.

Michael Gurney, co-CEO/VP of sales & mktg, Concept Systems
Michael Gurney, co-CEO/VP of sales & mktg, Concept Systems

A perfect storm is coming, and questions remain as to how U.S. manufacturers are going to navigate it. Manufacturers realize they need to automate to remain viable in today’s manufacturing environment, but with an aging workforce, fewer trade-skilled people entering the industry, a drive to minimize the costs associated with keeping a maintenance staff, and more and more complex automation technologies being implemented, it begs the question: How are these automated systems going to be maintained?

Nearly 12 percent of the workforce was comprised of folks 55 years and older in 1990. That number grew to 19.5 percent in 2010, and is expected to grow to 25 percent in 2020, according to an August 2013 Cornell University study. Couple that with the fact that unemployment levels are not rebounding to pre-2008 levels and it suggests that we are already feeling some swells of the storm.

So how is this issue going to solved? Are manufacturers going to invest in the infrastructure to foster and grow a younger workforce interested in skilled trades? Are they going to be willing to carry the staff? Are automation providers going to diversify and start offering service contracts to allow manufacturers to outsource these services? Are manufacturers going to be willing to pay for these outsourced services? Is outsourcing more economical than carrying a staff? Or maybe it is time the automation providers stepped up their game and better used advanced technologies to self-diagnose problems, self-heal, and maintain reliable operations?

Yes, I know I am a radical thinker when it comes to self-healing technologies, but can we at least settle on auto-dispatching of service personnel?

It is an interesting time in manufacturing and how things evolve over the next several years will result in huge gains for the manufacturers that get it right and major losses for those that do not. I suspect that manufacturers are willing to invest in further development of the workforce and are willing to carry the staff, if need be, but their ability to effect change at the level needed requires big players stepping up and making a concerted effort and we are not seeing that. Without that, outsourced service contracts are likely a more appealing option for manufacturers, if they can get the assurances that downtime events can be minimized. From a service company perspective, however, this is a difficult proposition, because it's difficult to maintain a high-tech staff and have them readily available, where they are needed whenever a downtime call comes in. Long term, when the risk of extended downtime events is factored in, I suspect this model won't save a manufacturer much in comparison to maintaining one’s own staff.

That said, a similar model has been proven to work if systems are closely monitored so that the service company can provide a more proactive approach by dispatching trade-specific, local service personnel, when a problem is first detected before it results in a downtime event. This model requires a significant investment in improving automation to avoid crashes that cause unexpected downtime events, and “sensoring” existing equipment to monitor systems remotely. After that initial investment, however, the total cost of ownership is greatly reduced. I am eager to hear from readers if they know of companies doing this, and how effective it is proving to be.

As an automation solution provider, I am focused on continually upping our game by investigating how to provide smarter, easier-to-maintain systems and looking for technologies that provide us those tools. Ultimately, we will always be in a position where we are able to deliver systems that allow our customers to benefit from the best technology has to offer. Whether they want to pay for and implement these technologies is up to them. These are decisions that need to be heavily weighted on their maintenance strategy heading into the future.

Michael Gurney is co-CEO/vice president of sales and marketing at Concept Systems, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association.

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