Transitioning the Maintenance Team to Automation

Last week we spoke with Dave Beres about how to build a highly successful maintenance team. That’s a topic he knows more than a little something about as director of field services for warehouse automation at OPEX.

And since Beres handled that topic so well, we’ve asked him back to talk about how best a maintenance team can make the shift from conventional equipment to automation.

“Oh, first of all the team has to think differently. To begin, you’re going from mature, stable, low-tech equipment to high-tech systems. That means the maintenance team is no longer primarily wrench turning, fairly standard, off-the-shelf equipment with some controls thrown in. Now every team member has to be up to speed not just with equipment mechanics but also with electrical and software. Automation is a lot more demanding when it comes to skills.”

That’s interesting. Tell us a little more about the maintenance differences between conventional and automated systems.

“Conventional systems are all fairly standard. You could call them somewhat interchangeable, even though they come from different suppliers. That means the techs’ abilities apply to a range of similar equipment. And there isn’t much of a need to keep a large inventory of spare parts on hand. Parts are relatively available.

All of that changes with automation. There is no common design so techs need to be specifically knowledgeable about what they are working on. There’s just so much more technology at work in automation. And it’s all integrated. Spare parts are a whole different ball game too.”
How so?

“For start up of an automated system, I generally recommend having on hand 8 to 10 times the value of spare parts in stock compared to conventional systems, at least for the first couple of years. That gives the team a chance to build a history of what’s needed. Over time, they can lean out some of the inventory based on usage history, but not a lot. Part of the challenge here is spare parts for automation aren’t always immediately available. There can be extended wait times to re-supply some parts. And as we all know, if an automated system is down, those orders just won’t ship. And the time can’t be recovered either. There are consequences of keeping insufficient parts on hand.”

What about the culture of the maintenance team? Does that have to change too?

“You bet. If someone or the entire team was an all-star with conventional equipment, that doesn’t necessarily translate to automation. The jack-of-all-trades mentality is destined for heartache. So are the teams that are based on lowest price for people. Automation requires more and different skills, and a higher skill set means higher pay.”

It almost sounds like you’re making the case to contract with the automation supplier to handle maintenance.

“That is certainly an option. And a good one in many cases. Many companies start that way and take maintenance in house once they train up a great team.”

Next week, we’re going to explore why and when supplier maintenance programs are the way to go.  

Gary Forger is the former editor of Modern Materials Handling magazine and the Material Handling & Logistics U.S. Roadmap to 2030. 

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