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The sunset of service and support

Aug. 17, 2022
Pride, ownership and accountability too often yield to apologies

Startup activities were getting underway as the long weekend approached, and the effort steadily revealed field devices that were adversely affected by the prior month’s repair and reassembly activities. Perhaps only an instrument enclosure was askance, having been abused by temporary scaffolding. But in one case, hot slag from cutting and welding on the boiler economizer thoroughly roasted all the coaxial cable connecting the conductivity-based water column sensors (we call them spark plugs) to the relatively new electronics. Since the new system was using the uncommon cable in its patented method to detect fouling and prompt cleaning, the search for a few hundred feet of coax ensued. Operations would soon be looking to bring boiler feedwater into the steam drum. Was Saturday delivery a possibility? Perhaps.

As in many industries, hiring and retaining reliable individuals has been challenging, and so it is with package delivery. Novices seem to get those Saturday assignments and it happened that the premium service for which we paid was never fulfilled. Process industry complexes can be perplexing to the newbie, and we eventually found our cable at the neighbor’s. This sort of experience—where short-timers depart an occupation before truly becoming effective—appears to be permeating many endeavors, including the controls community.

Decades ago, a chemical plant installed some then-novel, microprocessor-based controllers for the control loops on a new incinerator. Individual controllers installed in the panel still had physical faceplates (displaying the process variable, setpoint and output), but operations soon discovered that the LED display would go blank randomly when they touched it. While control continued, they might go hours with no indication of what was really happening with that loop. After a desperate phone call or two, three individuals responsible for the design and manufacturing of the controllers were standing at the panel to witness their customer’s struggles. Having pitched the theory that static electricity was to blame, the three fellows watched the board operator put a metal colander (literally, the pasta cooking implement) on his head, fitted with an alligator-clip jumper, which he dutifully connected to the panel before interacting with any of the faceplates. This ridiculous scene was great motivation, and the somewhat humbled team headed back to the factory. The issues were addressed promptly, and the customer continued their relationship with the supplier, using the controllers on other projects.

Expertise distributed, diluted

This story serves as one of my best examples of a supplier/manufacturer communing with his or her end user, “feeling their pain,” as it were. Would this ever happen in 2022? For years, designers, manufacturers, marketing specialists and technical support have become scattered around the globe. There is no dearth of talent in low-cost regions, but like everywhere else, competition for experienced and proven performers is intense. In addition, with the supply chains of technology sourcing and delivery spread across multiple time zones, end users seeking support may get little satisfaction from their local resources, who are themselves frustrated by the same dysfunctional bureaucracy.

The days of yore when an irate phone call to your supplier’s representative spurred action and a quick solution are a thing of the past—they may sympathize with your plight, but many are relative novices themselves. The supply chain is so complex, distended and diluted—does any end user have a chance of finding an individual who accepts accountability for a problem or a failure?

Where once we had pride, ownership and accountability, we now too frequently find only apologies. End user controls professionals are serving enterprises whose management has little sympathy or understanding for such challenges, as plant managers are themselves harangued by their superiors, anxious for production to resume or increase. Laments about package delivery failures or sketchy technical help could hasten the sunset of one’s career.

About the author: John Rezabek
About the Author

John Rezabek | Contributing Editor

John Rezabek is a contributing editor to Control

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