Minimize risk in selecting an automation support services provider

Because of the critical impact automation service providers can have on the operation and productivity of a manufacturing operation, selecting the right service provider requires careful analysis and consideration. After examining business goals and capabilities of in-house staff, manufacturers can better evaluate service options needed to minimize risk and improve total cost of operations to achieve productivity and profitability goals.


Because of the critical impact automation service providers can have on the operation and productivity of a manufacturing operation, selecting the right service provider requires careful analysis and consideration. After examining business goals and capabilities of in-house staff, manufacturers can better evaluate service options needed to minimize risk and improve total cost of operations to achieve productivity and profitability goals.

To establish the required return for a support program, companies should thoroughly assess current manufacturing costs and production output against defined goals and customer demand. Goal is to fully understand priorities and expectations to define a support program that will provide the best return on investment (ROI). To best quantify the ROI for service agreements, manufacturers should link program results to specific metrics, such as cost/downtime reduction and throughput/quality improvement. These metrics are often calculated using two key performance indicators (KPIs): return on net assets (RONA) and overall equipment efficiency (OEE). These KPIs are the most important barometers of how effectively a company utilizes its assets. By designing a support program around KPIs, companies can maximize results and more accurately measure progress against defined goals.

Evaluation: Not all service providers are created equal. Some specialize in particular industries, while others focus on specific technologies. They also differ dramatically in level of experience, technical competency, and ability to offer a variety of value-added services. Making the right choice depends on a number of factors. Here are some key criteria to consider when selecting a services provider.

  • Experience is an important component in the selection process, and companies should focus on service providers with capabilities to support and maintain automation systems technology.

  • Flexibility comes from the service provider’s ability to apply a wide range of resources in the location and to the degree needed. In some cases, a service provider will take full responsibility for an entire maintenance or support function and supply all elements of the solution. In other situations, the service provider will deliver only the skills and resources required to augment those of internal staff. In either case, the services can help reduce risk and free plant engineers to use their strengths and core competencies in the right areas.

  • Competency: Support services come in several forms and varying levels of delivery ( see sidebar ).

    The service provider should have the domain expertise and application experience to assess performance, suitability, and long-term effectiveness of a manufacturing process and identify and implement operational and maintenance enhancements that optimize production performance. Often, service providers who have developed and manufactured the products being supported have the deepest expertise and skill sets.
  • Strategic approach: To maximize results, a support program should encompass a mix of reactive, preventive, and predictive maintenance activities based on the lifecycle of the equipment being supported. In selecting a service provider, it is important to evaluate companies based on the range of services provided to best minimize risk while reducing costs and maximizing operating returns.

Common support automation services include:

  • Phone support—Phone support provides direct access to support engineers and technical experts who can provide immediate help with questions regarding product installation, operation, maintenance, and troubleshooting. Dial-up diagnostics and application-level assistance may also be available through some phone support vendors.

  • On-site support services—These services provide field support engineers at the customer’s site on a callout or scheduled basis. Scheduled activities are often provided in the form of preventive maintenance. Preventive maintenance is performed as needed throughout a given year and includes comprehensive checks of automation equipment and proactive problem remediation to maximize its reliability and efficiency. All activities performed are thoroughly documented and reviewed with the customer.

  • Spare parts services—Parts management agreements provide ready access to spare parts when needed, reducing inventory and management costs. Because parts are often owned by the equipment vendor, and stocked at one of its facilities, valuable space on the factory floor once reserved for spare parts storage can be freed for other uses.

  • Repair services—These services provide fast, reliable repair of automation equipment from a single-source provider, helping to maximize uptime and reliability. Look for vendors that re-manufacture equipment as opposed to those that just repair the known issue. Remanufacturing restores the equipment to original specifications and can include: Installation of applicable updates/enhancements, replacement of failed/aged components, parametric testing, in-service warranty, and cleaning and cosmetic restoration. Some vendors may also offer exchange services for failed equipment and MRO (maintenance, repair, and operations) process management services with repair/warranty tracking and failure analysis.

  • Training—Training classes come in a variety of forms to meet specific needs of the customer. Standard instructor-led classes can often be attended at a vendor facility. Vendors may also offer custom classes conducted at an alternative location (such as the customer facility) with specialized course content. Self-paced training is also available in the form of online and CD-based classes. Finally, many learning aids are available to enhance the learning experience and provide immediate reference information on specific automation-related topics.


Selection: Since not all companies have the same support requirements, manufacturers should look for a supplier that offers a scaleable range of support options, allowing selection of a service level that best matches their lean initiatives, productivity goals, engineering capabilities, and budgets. When selecting a service provider include the following key questions.

  • Does the provider have a sufficient qualified staff and financial resources to deliver timely, reliable support?

  • Does the service provider have a thorough understanding of your plant-floor assets and your manufacturing environment in general?

  • How familiar is the provider with your automation technology?

  • Can the provider demonstrate proof of expertise in your industry and the standards/regulations governing it?

  • How will service provider demonstrate a commitment to the success of your operation?

The provider also should have a defined methodology for calculating and reporting financial and production improvements resulting from delivery of the services, and the payback period. This helps manufacturers more accurately evaluate effectiveness of a support program and determine the return on investment on the agreement.

Companies can often achieve better results by combining multiple services into a consolidated program from a single provider. With an integrated base of knowledge from which to work, the service provider is better able to identify and address problems and causes of equipment failure across multiple plants or processes, resulting in lower costs, reduced downtime and increased efficiency. The key to success is careful planning built for clearly defined goals and responsibilities. A well-designed support agreement can often pay for itself quickly, in hard dollars, as well as in other tangible areas, such as improved customer service, better product quality, and greater peace of mind. By asking the right questions and following some core guidelines, manufacturers can choose a service agreement that best meets their requirements and delivers maximum value and return.

—Tom Greene, director, field support services, Rockwell Automation , Global Manufacturing Solution, is responsible for the planning and implementation of Rockwell Automation field service support, training and asset management field personnel worldwide. He’s based in Cambridge, ON, Canada.

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