8 Practices in MRO for Automation

When it comes to multimillion-dollar warehouse automation investments, it’s not enough to just set it and forget it. Follow these valuable tips to ensure long equipment life, predictable return on investment, and the lowest possible total cost of ownership

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You wouldn’t buy a high-performance automobile, expensive watercraft or million- dollar home without thinking about the continual maintenance and repair associated with these big-ticket items, but that’s exactly what companies do when they implement warehouse automation without developing an associated plan for ongoing maintenance, repair and operations.

“Well before the system is accepted and in use, the owner/operator, with the guidance and talent of the integrator, has a responsibility to develop an ownership strategy,” says Michael Kotecki, senior vice president of customer service at Dematic. “This should be a detailed plan by which the company will successfully take ownership of the technology and ensure continued satisfaction and utility from the investment.”

Too often, companies ignore this step and jump right into using the equipment, only to run into significant challenges when a component fails, an accident occurs, or some other incident interrupts its normal operations. “The key to happy ownership is to eliminate surprises,” says Kotecki. To develop a successful ownership strategy that will endure for the long term, follow these eight best practices in automation MRO.

  1. Commit to an operational strategy sooner rather than later. Automated systems can take months—if not years—to source, procure, install and implement. A lot of people are involved in the process along the way, but not all of them will ultimately be responsible for the ongoing MRO for the installed system. “It’s sad at times to see customers spend millions of dollars to install automated systems and not have a clue as to what it takes to keep those systems operational,” says Robert Douglas, service manager at Westfalia Technologies. To offset this problem, Douglas says companies should put together internal teams to evaluate what happens once the equipment is purchased and installed. They should ask questions like: How are we going to take care of it once we have it in place? What are we going to rely on from the vendor? How will we train “Well before the system is accepted and in use, the owner/operator, with the guidance and talent of the integrator, has a responsibility to develop an ownership strategy,” says Michael Kotecki, senior vice president of customer service at Dematic. “This should be a detailed plan by which the company will successfully take ownership of the technology and ensure continued satisfaction and utility from the investment.” Too often, companies ignore this step and jump right into using the equipment, only to run into significant challenges when a component fails, an accident occurs, or some other incident interrupts its normal operations. “The key to happy ownership is to eliminate surprises,” says Kotecki. To develop a successful ownership strategy that will endure for the long term, follow these eight best practices in automation MRO. our workforce for this completely new system that’s going into our operation? “There are just so many things that need to be taken into account,” says Douglas, “and I don’t think they’re brought into account early enough in the game.”
  2. Look in the mirror and assess your “owner profile.” Be honest and clear on your company’s current and planned appetite and aptitude in terms of maintenance, repair and technology parenting. “If your planned aptitude is greater that your current level, you will need a hiring, tooling and/or training plan to get to the vision you aspire to,” Kotecki recommends. “Take into account the relative complexity of your system, the hours of operation, level of software and controls and be clear at all organizational levels as to your tolerance for risk.” These key points will affect your decisions regarding elements like parts inventory, frequency of audits, level of OEM involvement, and more. When it comes to multimillion-dollar warehouse automation investments, it’s not enough to just set it and forget it. Follow these valuable tips to ensure long equipment life, predictable return on investment, and the lowest possible total cost of ownership.
  3. Use dashboards to monitor your systems. Don’t wait for an engine to start smoking or an oil light to flash to warn you about a problem with your automated systems. Instead, use dashboards (most often software-based and provided by the manufacturer or a third party) to keep tabs on the systems 24/7/365. “You want to be constantly monitoring the systems, and the best way to do that is by using a dashboard,” says Kenneth Hayer, director of consulting at Swisslog Logistics. The dashboard will show which components, crane stacks or conveyor sections are broken down (and why), as well as robotic system uptime, downtime and the frequency and causes of stoppages. The system supplier can also provide an additional layer of oversight and support. At Swisslog’s headquarters, for example, every customer has a “screen” that’s used to track—and make the user aware of—equipment usage, stoppages and maintenance issues. “Sometimes we’ll call a customer and say, ‘Hey, this section here seems to be causing regular problems,’” says Hayer, “’Can you take a look and see what’s causing it?’”
  4. Train personnel on the equipment, technology and usage. All the technology, automation, and bells and whistles in the world can’t replace the human factor needed to ensure the long-term, smooth running of automated equipment. So once all of the systems are in place, take the time to train employees on the fine points of using the equipment, maintaining it in a preventative manner, and detecting problems with it. “Train maintenance personnel on how the equipment should be maintained and also on what doesn’t sound right, look right or feel right (i.e., equipment vibrations),” says John Sorenson, senior vice president and general manager at Intelligrated. “Taking this step provides a high reduce the equipment downtime associated with repairs and maintenance. Look for providers that offer “kitting” of spare parts, suggests Ed Romaine, vice president of sales and marketing at SI Systems. That way, when an issue occurs, you don’t have to spend all day cobbling together the 50 different parts needed to make the repair. “At the end of the day, it’s about time, labor and level of return in terms of the reliability of the asset, the safety of your staff, and the longevity of the equipment.” This, in turn, will help reduce the total cost of ownership over the long haul.
  5. Make sure spare parts are available and accessible. Availability of spare parts is a common problem for owners of automated systems. By ensuring there are plenty on site in the warehouse or DC—or, easily accessible with a same-day service—companies can output,” says Romaine. “Those are the three elements that you want optimized and running at all times.” Pore through the suggested parts list and make a business and operational decision as to what level of spare parts inventory you’ll need on hand according to you and the OEM. “Consider what items may already be on hand or in your network and what time it takes to acquire the part when ordered from the manufacturers,” Kotecki adds, noting that a parts crib (i.e., a secure, well-maintained area to warehouse your spares) is a reliable and deliberate way to receive, inspect and log parts.
  6. Be prepared to replace your equipment (or go without parts) in about seven years. On average, the electronic drives being put into place in today’s warehouses will be valid, operational and supported for about seven years. That’s not to say some equipment won’t be useful for 10 or 20 years, but for the most part seven years is a good target figure. Based on this reality, Douglas says companies should prepare themselves for possible replacements within seven years. And, understand that replacement parts and components may be hard to come by once the seven years run out. To avoid potential problems, Douglas advises companies stay up to speed on what’s current, what’s obsolete and how your operation could be hurt if and when replacement parts become unavailable.
  7. Do annual checkups with your supplier. Just like humans need regular doctor and dentist visits, automated equipment requires regular, annual checkups. Hayer says these checkups are best conducted by the OEMs who sold you the equipment. “Have them come in for a day or two and go through the entire system,” Hayer advises. “They can look for any changes that happened since the last visit, introduce you to new options (i.e., on new components available on the market), and make other valuable suggestions.” While on site, the OEM can also let you know about any parts or components that it’s going to stop supporting/making in five years—a good indicator that it’s time to start looking at possible replacements sooner rather than later.
  8. Don’t just set it and forget it. Embarking on your first large investment in the high-tech supply chain can be scary. And while there may be temptation to just “set it and forget it” once the equipment is in place, Kotecki warns against this strategy. A better approach involves periodic ownership audits that help identify issues like inordinate wear, safety concerns, changes in regulations and even potential obsolescence. For example, if your conveyor system includes pieces of equipment that the OEM plans to stop supporting in two years, then regular audits can help you get out in front of the issue before it becomes a real problem. “Through a regular auditing regimen, you’ll be able to fundamentally increase the ROI over time,” says Kotecki, “and budget and plan accordingly.”

Companies Mentioned in this Article:

Dematic
Intelligrated
SI Systems
Swisslog Logistics
Westfalia Technologies

 


About the Author

Bridget McCrea, Editor
Bridget McCrea is a Contributing Editor for Logistics Management based in Clearwater, Fla. She has covered the transportation and supply chain space since 1996, and has covered all aspects of the industry for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review. She can be reached at [email protected]

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