Evaluating your automated equipment maintenance options

serivice_viastore_1When trade publication Modern Materials Handling recently published the findings of their first annual maintenance study, “Reader survey: Maintaining the automated warehouse,” the results confirmed the trends we’ve been observing for a while:

  • More warehouses and distribution centers (DCs) are investing in automated material handing equipment, systems, technologies and software. Two-thirds of the respondents reported at least 25% of their facilities had some level of automation; 13.4% run operations with as much as 75% to 100% automated systems.
  • Operations are struggling to find personnel qualified to service and maintain those installations. A total of 87% report that it’s “somewhat difficult” (32%), “very difficult” (42%), or “extremely difficult” (13%) to find technicians who can maintain these complex systems.

Why? Well, as the article notes, the baby boomer generation—who have held many of these skilled positions—are retiring. New technicians are hard to find; there simply haven’t been as many people entering the skilled trades in the past couple of decades.

Because we understand these challenges, viastore has developed a variety of service packages to help our customers maintain their installations. Although each package is uniquely customized to each customer, they generally fall into three types of offerings:

  • A short-term commissioning plan that includes a viastore technician on-site at a customer’s facility during installation, start-up, and hands-on training of their internal maintenance staff on routine service and repair tasks.
  • A resident viastore technician on-site for a longer period (usually a year) to assist the customer’s maintenance department with preventative maintenance and repair activities. The viastore technician’s role is more instructional and less hands on, with the ultimate goal being the internal maintenance staff’s ability to handle most tasks on their own.
  • A hybrid approach, where the internal maintenance staff handles most of the day-to-day tasks, and a viastore technician is scheduled to come in two to four times per year for preventative maintenance and to address any major concerns.

We’re not the only original equipment manufacturer (OEM) who offers these service options, of course. And our customer maintenance agreements align fairly closely to the findings of Modern’s study: 46% internal, 18% outsourced, 35% hybrid.

How do you choose which maintenance management option is right for you? Ask yourself the following:

1How hard is it to find qualified technicians in your area? In our experience, customers with facilities located closer to urban and metropolitan areas have an easier time finding skilled personnel, while those in less densely populated regions take longer to fill openings.

 

2What is your company’s culture? Some companies truly want to keep everything “in house,” while others have made outsourcing part of their operations strategy.

 

3What is the comfort level of your technicians with the automation? Most of our customers’ service personnel feel very qualified to service, repair, troubleshoot and maintain conveyor systems, for example. Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), on the other hand, are more complex and not as common in the U.S., meaning fewer technicians have had experience with them, and feel less confident in their ability to service that equipment.

 

By the way, at viastore we’re not immune to these hiring difficulties either. While we’ve recently added several new technicians to our service team, it was a challenge to find qualified people who met our high standards.

One of the biggest issues we’ve observed in the field is that the defined skill set of a “qualified technician” has changed much faster than the curricula in most training programs. Maintaining and servicing today’s automated material handling equipment requires not only mechanical expertise, but also electrical and programming knowledge. The problem is that many of the educational programs tend to divide those subjects into separate and unrelated tracks.

That’s why we’re currently exploring ways to help our local community colleges and technical schools develop new training programs that give students the broad-based skills and experiences these types of jobs require. And, through our association with MHI, the national material handling industry group, we’re working on developing standards for continuing education and certification of both new and experienced workers. The idea is to help technicians keep their skills sharp and to help them better service the automated equipment installations of today—and tomorrow.

About Ben Outwater

Ben is the Director of Customer Service at viastore and is responsible for hotline, spare parts, and crane commissioning and service. Ben started with DCS (later purchased by viastore) in 2003 as a software engineer straight out of college, and has been with the company ever since.

Comments

  1. With all the technological advances in today’s society, it is a must for continued education. Like most college degrees, companies are looking for smart energetic personnel. Essentially, this degree shows the company the the person is trainable. Ideally, internships are the way to go. Not only is the student learning from the academic end they are also seeing how the real world works. Many times these students are immediately hired on and are off and running with only periodic in-service training.

    • John Clark says:

      Craig,
      Thanks for your comment. I’d add that for these types of solutions, a solid ‘vocational school’ education is needed. There might be too much emphasis on a college degree and not enough on the trades…and the people who service and maintain these types of solutions.

Speak Your Mind

*