Automation service contracts: Extend in-house engineering

Remote support, distribution or direct, upgrades, and software are among key automation service contract considerations.


Mark Lewis is Beckhoff Automation’s manager of technical services. Courtesy: Beckhoff AutomationAutomation service contracts extend expertise of in-house engineering and improve productivity. Here are key questions to ask when considering an automation service contract, according to Mark Lewis, manager of technical services, Beckhoff Automation. Control Engineering and Plant Engineering (CFE Media) asked Lewis a few questions about automation service contracts.

CFE Media: Have automation service contracts changed over the last five years?

In short, automation service contracts are more important than ever. With a large pool of engineering talent approaching retirement age, these contracts will likely only increase in their critical importance. With the increased demand for operational efficiency and so many OEMs going out of business over the past five years, more end users than ever must seek service help from automation suppliers in addition to local contract service providers. When you combine this reality with the constant march of rapidly emerging technologies, specialized help to supplement in-house engineering departments is often required.  Of course, the easiest way to find this specialized help is to enlist the aid of the vendors that supplied the equipment to begin with. While a reliable service partner is key, forward-thinking users should actively seek improvements to the quality and reliability of their production line by using new technologies. Users should integrate a modern hardware platform, such as PC-based control and Industrial Ethernet. This reduces over-reliance on service contracts to keep outdated legacy equipment alive on machines that aren’t competitive.  

CFE Media: When should I consider an automation service contract?

The short answer is that users should seriously consider an automation service contract anytime the cost of lost production exceeds what the business model can allow. Companies that have implemented a good overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) system should have a head start in this area.

This lost production could have several mechanical/electrical causes; however, it could also come in the form of engineering projects running over budget or missing deadlines due to a lack of expertise on staff. The best OEE calculation in the world won’t help in that scenario. When the financial viability of a plant is at stake, it can really pay to have an experienced automation vendor handle mission critical service contracts. 

CFE Media: What are questions clients always ask about automation service contracts?

The cost of service is of course the most obvious, so it’s imperative that machine builders and end users find automation vendors that have service departments that are easy to work with, and fair in their pricing and the fine print of their contracts. Another important consideration: users should also inquire into the availability of their vendor/service partner’s spare parts stock and response time for parts delivery and the service itself, be it via telephone or in the form of a technician or engineer providing support on-site. 

CFE Media: What questions should clients ask, and may not think about, with automation service contracts?

a. Can the vendor provide remote support via an Internet connection?

b. Does all of the service and support offered come directly from the vendor/manufacturer or is it through a distribution channel? This is important as distributors may have less access to key industry experts or even the vendor’s product developers.

c. How will further upgrades be handled? Will the platform I am installing today carry me as far into the future as I need it to go, and what will it cost me when the time comes to upgrade again?

d. Will I have to pay for software I have already purchased once? Unnecessarily difficult and expensive software license management is one of the most common frustrations that drive users to change vendors. 

CFE Media: From your experiences, what are key lessons learned when working with clients on automation service contracts?

Results are best when the clients approach their automation service providers as a tightly integrated partner rather than “just a contractor.” Automation vendors that can truly collaborate with their customers to move technology forward, but still respect the intellectual property (IP) of the customer, are the best to work with. Beware the automation vendor that wants to “own” your code, which essentially means your entire machine. What happens when the design is done and machines in the field must be serviced? What does the cost of support look like then? What happens if the vendor starts to view your business as a “small customer”? What if the vendor goes out of business? The most important lesson of all is to protect the IP of your machines when hammering out the details of any major service contract. 

CFE Media: How/when is the contract fulfilled or finished?

The service contract is fulfilled when the goals and objectives laid out in the established project time line have all been accomplished to the satisfaction of the user. A truly great end to any service contract is when the user becomes self-sustaining and can transition to more autonomous operations with its production running at optimum efficiency and the integrity of its IP secure.

- Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering and Plant Engineering,

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