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The Fix Isn’t In

March 5, 2020
Food Processing's own Pan Demetrakakes talks about how bad things can happen when equipment is hard or impossible for users to fix.

“Things are too hard to fix nowadays!”

That’s been a complaint ever since Oog the stone carver made a wheel with a diameter that Goog, the wood carver in the next cave, didn’t have an axle for. As machinery and other things become exponentially more complex, they get that much harder to fix.

This is, of course, a natural consequence of progress. It’s why maintenance and repair is a separate industrial discipline. But anyone who uses sophisticated equipment – meaning anyone who isn’t still living in a cave – has probably entertained the suspicion, at one time or another, that the people who furnish that equipment are making repairs tougher than they have to.

First we had planned obsolescence, a nefarious concept that gave rise to a million conspiracy theories and urban legends. It’s impossible to prove that anyone actually used planned obsolescence as a corporate strategy because, to my knowledge, no one has ever been dumb enough to put it in writing – “Excellent prototype, but reduce the useful life from 72 to 60 months.”

But people can be forgiven for having their suspicions. I’m old enough to remember when cars, meaning American cars, could be counted on for no more than five or six years before they started to become money pits. Then Japanese automakers moved in, using quality control techniques with funny names like “kaizen,” and all of a sudden, cars were routinely lasting a dozen years or more. American car manufacturers upped their game in a hurry.

There have been cases, however, where manufacturers have been accused of making repairs tough, with the end game of monopolizing the repair market – and it’s not just speculation.

Apple is among the worst offenders. Its CEO, Tim Cook, warned investors in a letter last year that the company was losing money because too many consumers were getting their phones fixed at third-party repair shops. Apple promptly added code to the phones’ software that would disable them if “unauthorized” repairs were attempted.

John Deere has pulled a similar stunt with tractors and other agricultural equipment. It has denied farmers the right to access the source code of its equipment’s software, to buy spare parts or to perform certain other repairs without going through a Deere dealer.

This is a big deal for farmers, because fixing stuff yourself is a basic agricultural skill. It’s why several food plant managers have told me they love hiring farm kids, especially as maintenance technicians, because the kids have already dealt with just about every kind of mechanical problem.

The “we fix or no fix” attitude has been seeping into some other sectors that touch the food industry, such as common industrial components. There have been mergers and acquisitions where the acquiring company has decided to totally revamp, meaning restrict, sales and maintenance. No more widely distributed networks of affiliated shops; now everything has to be sold or fixed under strict corporate oversight.

This leaves end users, who used to deal with their friendly neighborhood dealer/repair shop when they needed a machine or part fixed, stuck with calling an 800 number that’s always busy.

I have not, to date, heard anything about any food equipment manufacturers deliberately making their products hard to fix. But in most cases, they don’t have to. The more sophisticated equipment becomes, the less likely food or beverage plants are to have someone on hand who can fix it.

As machinery progresses from servos and SCADA systems to the Internet of Things, maintenance staff at many plants hasn’t kept up. In some cases this is organic; in others, it’s a deliberate strategy. I’d like to have a dollar for every equipment supplier who ever told me that customers keep pushing maintenance responsibilities back onto them.

In most cases, this suits the equipment vendors quite well. But some of the more scrupulous ones see the potential for their customers getting too far out in front of themselves with automation. 

One of them recently told me how he had to argue a medium-sized bakery, which was introducing a new, small, high-volume product, out of putting pick-and-place robots at the head of the line.

“These are sophisticated pieces of equipment, and you can often go so far that your maintenance staff can’t handle this type of equipment,” he said.

Food equipment manufacturers aren’t like Apple and John Deere, blocking and sabotaging self-repair efforts. But if you get too dependent on them for maintenance, the effect could very well be the same.

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