Monday morning, 5:45 a.m.: In production, the control system of a machine – which, in fact, is also a bottleneck in the process – undergoes total failure due to age and has to be replaced on short notice. However, initial research shows that the control system is no longer available as a spare part – neither from the supplier nor on the market. It is simply no longer manufactured in this form and specification. A replica would almost be equivalent to buying a new machine in terms of costs. What is one to do?
Director Wolfram W. Hackbarth and Senior Consultant Peter Kink address this issue by focusing on the following questions: Which factors promote obsolescence? How can the total failure of a bottleneck machine be avoided? Above all, how can it be remedied as quickly as possible?
WHAT IS OBSOLESCENCE?
The described scenario is not uncommon. In practice, it even occurs very frequently – in machining centers, in pressing and punching plants, in machine systems and production processes in large washing and cleaning processes in the textile industry, in test stands in the automotive sector, in furnaces and glaze lines in the ceramics industry as well as in heavy machinery construction.
If the abovementioned case occurs, we are talking about natural obsolescence. It affects worn-out machines that can no longer be used because of a lack of spare parts, service, process, and maintenance know-how, among other things. In heavy machinery manufacturing, there are neither spare parts for control systems nor service support from experienced technicians. Possible reasons for this might be that the equipment manufacturers have disappeared from the market over time or that the machines purchased in the 1980s are one-offs or special applications to customer specifications.
While a few years ago, the focus was primarily on electrical components such as controls, circuit boards, software, and PLC units with regular discontinuation, mechanical components and the service support of plant manufacturers are now increasingly becoming the focus of attention as bottlenecks. These bottlenecks constantly occur in everyday industrial life. Plants for renewable energy production are also affected, including wind power plants, semi-automatic electrical converters in the solar energy sector, and mobile antenna technologies.
Nonstop Work under High Pressure
At present, the production of many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) is not standing still. These companies are working under high pressure to compensate for the loss of production from the lockdown and the immense loss of sales. However, the continuous use of machines can provoke serious breakdown – especially for those companies that did not use the lockdown for maintenance purposes, but stopped the machines, then started them up, and have been using them nonstop ever since. These are at a high risk for total failure.
In a large number of industries, robust machines for certain manufacturing processes appear to be as good as new on the outside – but inside, there is a high risk of failure. The life cycles of the individual assemblies may long have been exceeded. Leaks, threatening oil pressure levels, and general wear and tear remain undetected without regular maintenance. For many companies, however, maintenance is currently out of the question. Where normal maintenance cycles were still possible, they are now completely eliminated. The time is simply missing. Added to this are the tight budgets for maintenance and servicing.
Lack of Know-How and Knowledge Transfer
Another factor concerns the know-how of the workforce: Often there is no internal transfer of knowledge from experienced, possibly retired employees to the young and still inexperienced workforce. If the machines were produced abroad and the external plant and service support are also located there, the current situation makes it more difficult for external service technicians from abroad to enter Germany.
How can bottlenecks be avoided and the total loss of production be remedied as quickly as possible?
Proactive obsolescence management is a target-oriented instrument that is absolutely necessary in business practice and takes effect when obsolescence threatens. In case of a total failure, a reactive obsolescence management according to plan is required. What aspects need to be considered here?
“Who do I contact first? Where do we get the spare part from? What if it is no longer available?” It is often difficult not to panic when production downtime occurs. Our experience has shown that in many cases, production management first contacts the wrong person, thus loseing valuable time.
For example, time is spent on contacting manufacturers who are no longer on the market. Other machine manufacturers, in turn, look up parts and service personnel with no success, or simply inform the customer that the discontinuation of assemblies and components of the machine system has been available for a long time. This means that service support is no longer required. These unnecessary procedures cost time and slow down the overall process.
Functional and Personal Safety
In the event of interventions in control systems or safety-relevant protective devices of machine systems, only qualified, authorized personnel may carry out repairs or modifications. However, safety aspects are often disregarded in the general panic. Instead of consulting technically authorized personnel, some companies commission their own staff to repair the machines. In doing so, they risk not only the safety of their personnel, but also the functional safety of their equipment or machine systems and their CE conformity. Before restarting the production machine, a mandatory release of and a consensual agreement with appropriate institutions applies. First and foremost, these are the responsible professional associations such as (BG), TÜV, DEKRA, or other authorized specialist service providers.
Advice from Experienced Obsolescence Experts
We advise companies to turn to experienced consultants with a network of reliable contacts who are familiar with the respective industry and across sectors – in the best case, they are obsolescence and production experts with many years of experience in operations, plant, and production management.
Network within the Industries: Refurbishers and Second-Hand Recyclers
In many industries, refurbishers have now focused on reconditioning old machines and systems in order to make them suitable for series production, repair them, and renew important assemblies and components. They often stock and sell spare parts and also employ former, experienced mechanics from the machine manufacturers. In addition to the network of refurbishers, there are also networks that affect the used goods market – here, some small European niche suppliers specialize in fast deliveries of special modules, machine parts, circuit boards, and other spare parts.
What issues regarding obsolescence do you deal with? We would be happy to hear from you. Be it new acquisitions or investments in a replica or spare parts, as independent consultants, we draw up precise liquidity plans, check the effects of investments on the company’s liquidity, and bring companies, providers, and financiers together.