Equipment Technology Challenges Repair Capability

By G. C. Skipper, Contributing Editor | September 28, 2010


Manufacturers engage end-users in their design processes, and this will often result in service and maintenance enhancements in machine design.

Training in troubleshooting techniques gives managers and technicians a better chance of determining why a machine is not performing properly.

Diagnostic tools enable equipment managers to accurately identify problems and reduce no-fault-found rates.

An End-User's View


Dave Markey, vice president, equipment services for American Infrastructure, is one end-user who agrees with research that portrays a gap between OEM engineers and designers and field technicians.

Markey is in a unique position to see both sides of the issue since, prior to becoming an equipment manager, he spent 20 years as an equipment dealer.

Although he agrees that one reason for the gap is the widely recognized shortage of qualified technicians, he says the primary reason is because not enough information is shared between the end-user and the OEM/dealer network.

"Some dealers are very progressive and have training at the dealership level," Markey says, "but at the manufacturing level, it's a little more difficult. There are one or two OEMs out there who are progressive, but in general, there is information that we have a great deal of trouble getting. It takes a lot of clout and knowing the right people to get the information."

There could be litigation issues and proprietary issues involved, he says. "Every business wants to — and has a right to — safeguard proprietary information. But I'm sure there is enough common ground that we can improve the situation in training opportunities."

Some of the information-sharing has come a long way from years ago, he says, but machines have become more complicated. Anytime more information and training are shared with the objective of keeping equipment running is good for all concerned.

"I'm not sure I care whose color shirts get the job done — the dealer's blue, my green or somebody else's grey," Markey says. "We have to get this done together as a team. The successful manufacturer, the successful dealer, and the successful end-user are the ones who keep the equipment running. The sooner we develop a teamwork strategy, the better off we will be overall."

It all comes down to building a good relationship, Markey says. "You have to make some judgment on how much you can tell each other."

He says he worried about this when he was a service manager with a dealership. "I was concerned when people would call and say, ?this is my problem,' or ask, ?how do you do this?' I asked myself, are we on the same page so that I can speak freely and help the guy, or am I going to tell him enough so he's going to go out and hurt himself or someone else?"

Markey says his company buys a lot of new equipment, and warranties are important. "Warranties represent a risk," he says. "You have a risk factor in that the machine may break down and have financial consequences. It is a matter of who will bear the risk."

Although he can't speak for manufacturers, he says there should be some type of warranty fund where a certain amount of money is allocated by OEMs to cover warranties, based on the track record of failures. "Manufacturers must have some funds to cover the risks. In the end, they hope they can manage the risk to where it washes out or stays in the black."

When wagons went west for the first time, chances are that the relationship between man and machine was complex — downtime from broken axles, rusted wheel rims, split wagon seats, and ripped canvas tops.

Of course, vehicles have changed drastically from horse-drawn wagons to horse-powered units, and the man-machine relationship has become increasingly complex. That is especially true in the construction industry. With the aggressive advance of technology, another dimension has evolved in that relationship, namely the engineering and design of the machine and its impact on the field technicians who have to repair them.

The Society of Automotive Engineers has established maintainability standards that address such issues as serviceability and repairability. These standards, as one OEM executive describes them, have proven "effective from the engineering and marketability point of view." Yet he admits, "from the repair and maintenance side of the business, where I've spent most of my career, it's been more like something we've had to contend with. It's a challenge to even meet and manage these targets."

That raises the question: Is there a growing gap between OEM engineers and designers and the field technicians responsible for maintaining machines? OEMs, in general, say no. There are other issues involved, they say, such as how you define serviceability; the shortage of good, trained mechanics; the need for easier interface between electronic diagnostic tools and mechanics; and the fact that numerous new products are developed because of new technologies and regulatory requirements. It's not a gap, they say, but a challenge for OEMs to convey complete, timely information as fast as possible to repair technicians.

Yet one research organization, International Data Corp. (IDC) in Framingham, Mass., sees a different landscape. IDC has 800 analysts in 60 countries who track markets and technologies in various industries, including on- and off-highway segments. IDC tracks manufacturer best practices and developing industry trends. IDC project manager Joe Barkai has focused on the U.S. construction industry, including the SAE maintainability standards.

"The standards talk about maintainability, but they really measure time on moving and replacing parts, which is part of the repair process," Barkai says. "That is one element — time to analyze the part and tools required to access the part. Most manufacturers still struggle with the question, ?how do I know this is the part to remove?' It's okay to say, I've just improved serviceability by cutting time to replace a part by 20 minutes, but the question still remains, how do I know it's the right part?

"The fundamental difficulties in serviceability are knowing which part is to be accessed and knowing what tools are needed," he says.

IDC tracks the efficiency of such things as no-fault-found rates and first-time-fix rates. "No fault found" means the part was replaced, but no fault was found with it when it was returned to the lab for testing. "First-time fix" means the first attempt at repair was successful. "What we've found is not good news," Barkai says. "The average no-fault-found is about 30 percent. If you segment that by type of product and type of component, such as electronics, you are at 80 percent no-fault-found."

Barkai says these numbers indicate poor serviceability. "We also look at what happens to the rest of the machine, to that 30 percent that didn't get fixed right the first time," he says. "What we have found is that those machines tend to come back for more than one repair. So statistically, it is very likely your machine will have to be repaired more than once until it's done right. On the maintainability issue, we just don't have tools good enough to precisely diagnose problems."

Warranty claims have "gone through the roof," Barkai says. "The average cost for warranties in auto and off-highway companies is about 2 percent of their product sales. This is a lot of money." OEM executives need to "be aware of the cost of poor quality, poor diagnostics, and poor repair practices," he says. "Maintainability needs to take a much stronger role in design than it does today."

Although OEMs such as Caterpillar, Volvo Construction Equipment and Case Construction Equipment agree with IDC research that suggests maintainability needs to take a greater, more important role in equipment design, they disagree with the 30 percent no-fault-found figure as well as the claim that there is a growing gap between OEM engineering and design and field technicians that must maintain the machines.

"No fault found occurs when an assumption is made about where the failure or problem is occurring," says Dave Hildebrand, general sales manager for customer support. "Most technicians today have the viewpoint that if I can narrow it down to a few components I can disconnect or replace, then I've fixed the problem. And what we find, generally speaking, is that the root cause often times on a no-fault-found problem is never addressed. There is something else within the system that makes it appear as though the component is the problem."

He gives alternators as an example. Many times alternators are replaced and blamed for the problem. "The alternator is not designed to take flat battery back up, and when the mechanic puts another alternator back in, it burns out again. In that case, yes there is an alternator failure, but the fault is not with the component that failed. It's because the battery wasn't fully charged to keep the alternator fully charged."

It's all about troubleshooting, says Dave Ross, vice president of engineering for Volvo motor graders. "The serviceability index does not directly deal with steps required to troubleshoot and determine the possible root cause. In these cases, it takes three things to come to a conclusion on root cause. One, you must be knowledgeable in the topic. Two, you must have information or data. Three, you must be skilled in solving problems, or have a tool that does it for you. Once you know definitely what the issue is, servicing the part is relatively easy."

Bill Springer, Caterpillar vice president of marketing and product support division, says proper technician training helps. "We've done some analysis ourselves and have determined that most of the no-fault-found situations can really be remedied by providing better troubleshooting skills to the technician. It really starts with proper tests and adjusting techniques on the components themselves. If you've got the right test and adjusting procedures in place, then it makes diagnostics much better."

Caterpillar has spent a lot of time and effort in ensuring diagnostics are right at the time of new-machine introduction, Springer says. "We've found that no-fault claims are well below the 30 percent average mentioned by IDC. As part of our new-product introduction process, our product engineers are deeply embedded early on to make sure we have the best possible serviceability. This is a huge issue as far as maintainability of the product goes."

Hildebrand says that the industry, in general, "has further to go to meet the end-user/customer demands when it comes to complex diagnostics and the correct repair the first time."

"The focus and effort of Volvo has been reducing failures or the actual number of events the machine is considered down for unscheduled maintenance and/or failures that lead to downtime and loss of productivity," Hildebrand says. "The actual time and expertise to correct this type of failure is what the end-user is concerned with when it comes to repairability."

Although the construction industry continues to improve on its efforts to meet end-user demands in this area, OEM executives say they don't see a growing gap between OEM design and field technicians who have to repair the units. Springer considers the situation "a continuing challenge."

"The reason I say that is because of the number of new products and technologies that have to be developed due to regulatory requirements and ever-increasing customer productivity expectations, each driving significant change," Springer says. "Therefore, there is an ongoing challenge to make sure the most current product information is communicated between the design engineers and the aftermarket serviceability consultants seamlessly, completely and timely."

Another problem, he says, is the number of new engineers that are coming into the work force. "There are a lot of them, so there are multiple challenges that have been in existence and will remain in existence for those reasons." Caterpillar has an increasing number of new engineers, he says, due to its growth and expansion into new markets. "This obviously gives our engineers new learning opportunities and, while it's an issue, we are prepared to meet today's challenges."

David Wolf, brand marketing manager at Case, also disagrees with IDC's conclusion that there is a growing gap. "We don't really see such a gap," he says. "Case has placed a huge emphasis on ease of maintenance and serviceability across all of its product lines. The incorporation of one-piece hoods that provide full access to the engine; ground line daily maintenance checks that require no tools; remote drains for fluid changes; and electronic service tools for quick, easy and accurate diagnostics. The involvement of service technicians in focus groups and new-product development discussions assist in minimizing the gap that is referenced."

Volvo uses SAE serviceability standards to compare design to design, Ross says. Serviceability targets are typically set ahead of the project, similar to product cost and quality targets. "In that way, it is very much in focus.

"However, in addition to serviceability targets, customer support representatives are always part of the design team and have a voice in the design aspects," Ross says. "Also, our customer-support teams tear down prototypes to determine better serviceability methods for the design cycle. We find the physical tear down is the most beneficial aspect of the design cycle from a servicing standpoint."

Ross says the technician issue lies more in the electronics side of things. "There are two basic issues here. First, the industry in general is finding a severe shortage of good, trained mechanics, which accentuates the problem. Second, as electronics continue to expand in products, the systems and diagnostic techniques need to become simpler to interface with. Mechanics today need to be well-trained in the use of various software and diagnostic tools. Simplifying this interface is a key issue."

"The unscheduled repair or failure require effective diagnostics," Hildebrand says. "The electronics today help provide more symptom information and error codes. However, the information still needs to be interpreted by the technician in order to apply the appropriate action."

Wolf says Case's goal is "to continuously improve product quality and use the best diagnostic tools available in the market. In fact, we see a generation of service technicians who are increasingly savvy and well-trained and increasingly skilled in the technology needed to do their jobs."

And at Volvo, Hildebrand comments, "construction-equipment quality is a result of field/application testing and the corrections implemented prior to production. Poor diagnostics and repair practices would be addressed through required, routine training and competency testing as done within the automotive industry."

Volvo's Ross says, "OEMs are making progress in this area. I believe the biggest benefit will come from better diagnostics and simplifying the interface between the machine and the mechanic."

Even so, says Barkai at IDC, fleet managers and technicians are challenged to keep up with the new technologies.

"The level of complexity and the level of knowledge of the industry required to maintain these complex systems is going much, much faster than the technician's ability to handle them."

Closing the engineering/designer and repair technician gap — perceived or otherwise — can be done, says Dave Markey, vice president, equipment services for American Infrastructure (see sidebar), but it will take teamwork and training at all levels. "This will take effort, and it is a cost," he says. "But with today's technician shortage, we must make attempts at doing more than we've done so far."