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Are You Being Served?

The headline comes from a British situation comedy that ran from 1972 to 1983 and can still be seen in the United States on Public TV.

The setting is a stodgy old Grace Brothers department store. Very proper Captain Peacock walks the floor trying to keep tabs on his quite nutty work force. More appropriate to this issue of Automation World is the word “served.” Are you being served by your automation suppliers?

At one time, it seemed to be the most natural thing to build up a maintenance department for the factory or plant. You bought equipment, either installed it yourself or had a contractor install it, and then you ran the process or machine. If it broke, you then had some people on the payroll to fix it. Since maintenance people are typically a pretty independent lot, I’m sure that more than one company supervisor felt like Captain Peacock trying to keep the troops in line.

Then processes became much more complex and required technicians with training and experience to maintain them. Factory engineers and managers who were interviewed for the articles in this issue mentioned the problems of finding enough people with these skills today. Sometimes the need is only part time. Other times, management reviews operations and considers which parts are core to the company’s existence and which can be contracted.

Balanced response

The major automation suppliers have all sensed a need from their customer base for support from qualified service technicians. For many, this has led to difficult balancing acts with customers’ wishes for a central service organization on the one hand and the suppliers’ system of distributors and other partners on the other. This situation has led to some interesting responses. One automation supplier has assumed total responsibility for maintenance, including hiring the staff from the customer. In other instances, suppliers have engineers on duty at their sites monitoring processes for customers at diverse locations throughout the country. This solution can be a great way to leverage scarce talent.

This aggressive move by major suppliers provides fuel for critics. Smaller partners of the major companies worry that they may get cut out of business by their big brothers. Some systems integrators have been vocal about moves by their suppliers. On the other hand, I’ve worked in the business and seen a mentality by some that the supplier should just hand over business and leads with no work from the integrator/distributor. Therefore, the balancing act I referred to above. Industry pundit and Automation World columnist Jim Pinto suggests in this month’s column that suppliers “go global, stay local.” That would be part of the balancing act.

The other area ripe for criticism lies in expectations of the customers and suppliers. Customers are torn between the desire to maintain options and the desire for stable, dependable partners. It appears that the current trend is toward the stable, dependable partner. But the partnership must be defined by solid contracts. Read the article by Contributing Editor Jim Koelsch carefully. The piece, beginning on page 40, provides advice on negotiating contracts. Defining expectations on both sides is of the utmost importance for determining future success.

I’m writing this column while hurricane Rita is closing in on the Texas coast. Katrina has already destroyed much along the Gulf coast. Automation suppliers and implementers have huge responsibilities in restoring manufacturing and refining capability. I detailed the responses of many automation companies to Katrina on my blog at radio.weblogs.com/0133292. Jane Gerold, Automation World Editorial Content Director, summarizes the extensive response by the automation community on page 64. My prayers go out to all those affected; my thanks to all who are working for restoration.

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