Sourcing the extreme

Paul Boughton

The trials and tribulation of sourcing obsolete automation parts. Leroy Spence reports

Do you remember that time your car wouldn’t start because the battery died at the very moment you were about to set off on holiday? Or when the washing machine belt broke that day you really needed a clean shirt? It’s never pleasant when everyday technologies fail, but when equipment breaks down in an industrial production environment, the results can be ruinous.

At European Automation helps companies around the world source industrial automation parts so they can avoid costly downtime. The market knows its ability to source obsolete motors, drives, PLCs, HMIs and a whole range of other industrial automation parts, from one side of the world to another in record time.

The costs of a broken down production line depend on the size of the company, the sector it operates in, where it’s located, how it is set up, what it's making and so on. But the feeling of frustration and helplessness when a breakdown occurs is the same anywhere.

Perhaps the only way to truly achieve peace of mind is to find an experienced partner who can source the industrial spare parts you so desperately need when production is slowed down or stopped altogether. When a broken down pump is holding up waste disposal in your food production facility, the last thing you want is a costly audit.

When the reliability of the expensive aerospace parts you manufacture is being jeopardised by a capricious HMI, you don’t need to replace the entire system. When your paper mill is on standby because of a faulty motor, no longer supplied by its original equipment manufacturer (OEM), there’s no need for an entire system upgrade.

All you really need is the right spare. As soon as possible. This is where European Automation comes in.

What if it’s no longer made?

Traditional industrial automation systems can last for decades without much need for upgrades and replacements. You can’t fault them on reliability, but nowadays sourcing parts for them can be tricky.

If you’ve ever tried shopping around for a DC motor that’s older than your kids, you probably know this already. Not to mention, many OEMs have either stopped producing older generation motors, encoders, PLCs, drives and so on - or have ceased to exist altogether.

The good news is a lot of these ‘industrial automation grandparents’ are still around. In fact, sourcing obsolete parts is our specialty, so even when the OEM is unable to help, there’s still hope.

In fact, there are several solutions available. One involves taking advantage of our extensive network of suppliers and a well-stocked storage facility. Another option is repairing the faulty part.

A few years ago, a Japanese customer from the paper and packaging industry was faced with a broken down Indramat RAC drive. If you’re familiar with the product family, you’ll know they’re legacy systems designed for high power applications. You might also know they usually require a small crane to be moved around, because they weigh almost 150 kilograms.

The other companies our client got in touch with had quoted either very long repair times or recommended a system upgrade that would take weeks or more. Instead, European Automation arranged for the bulky RAC drive to be delivered to our warehouse facility in the UK, repaired and sent back as soon as possible. After only 10 days, the repaired part was fully functional and back in the production line.

What if it’s urgent?

Speed is at the heart of what we do because sometimes even an additional hour of downtime can cost companies millions. It doesn’t matter how complicated the job is, we’ll work with you to sort out the logistics.

One of our biggest automotive customers in Mexico found this out when it placed an urgent order for a Hoyer electric motor. We managed to find one straight away and arranged to transport it from Denmark to our client’s facility in the fastest possible time.

The item was picked up at 2PM on the day and driven 1,550 kilometres to our warehouse facility. From there, it travelled to a local airport where a last minute flight was arranged by our customer, ensuring the motor was up and running in its new home in Mexico the very next day.

What if it’s awkward?

If we’re talking about slightly shorter distances, it’s not unusual for parts to be sourced and delivered in just 24 hours. On an early spring afternoon in 2014, for example, an urgent order came through from one of our oil and gas clients. We managed to find the required part and deliver it to Aberdeen overnight. From there, it was flown by helicopter to one of the oil rigs in the North Sea - signed, sent and delivered in less than 26 hours.

Plane, train, helicopter, taxi, you name it - we’ve seen it all. A good supplier should do whatever it takes to make sure you get your delivery on time and in perfect condition. This is why we use our branded, extra-secure packaging. And we go the extra mile(s). Literally. In a taxi. With your HMI resting comfortably on the seat next to us.

What if it’s all of the above?

Most of our projects are relatively straightforward, but every now and then we get one that really breaks the mould. Last year, an automotive company in the UK was in dire need of a PLC card. After their existing suppliers failed to be of any help, the senior engineering manager got in touch with European Automation. Within only a few hours, our purchasing experts had managed to find the right part, but because we weren’t on the company’s authorised supplier list, he was unable to purchase it.

This brought us to a standstill that was proving very costly to our customer. A part that existed, was available and only cost around £350 was about to lose the company £32,000 worth of downtime. And all because of a technicality!

Businesses exist to make money, but sometimes profit has to take a back seat to actually helping the people who are counting on you. So we did what any warm-blooded industrial automation supplier would do. Without telling the engineering manager, we ordered the part from the United States and arranged a visit to the automotive company’s manufacturing facility. Upon arrival, we surprised the engineering manager with the part he’d been trying to get for a week and an invoice for £0.

His production line was saved, no penalties were incurred and a very relieved - if slightly confused – engineering manager could relax knowing that his system was fully functional once more. In any industrial environment, regular maintenance is essential to avoid costly downtime.

Just as in the case of your car battery, you can usually avoid a disaster by making sure you regularly check everything is running smoothly. However, an industrial system is much more complex than a car battery, so no matter how much care you give it, outages can occur. Sometimes a replacement is difficult to source and most of the time, the spare is halfway around the world. But don’t let all of this keep you up at night. You can rest assured knowing that if any of this happens, all you have to do is pick up the phone and give our friendly sales team a call. They absolutely relish a challenge!

Leroy Spence is with industrial automation parts supplier, European Automation.