The problem is not that there are problems. The problem is expecting otherwise and thinking that having problems is a problem.
— Theodore Isaac Rubin, American Psychiatrist and Author

Good Doctor Rubin wasn't speaking of motion control systems when he coined this phrase, but he could have been. Enormous complexities surround our work. New hardware is often married to old, and it's typical for at least one element of a design to be connected to a legacy component. Adding to the confusion, we often work with systems sourced from a complex maze of manufacturers. At a recent motion control tradeshow, one engineer spoke of a requirement to couple half-century-old iron to state-of-the-art electronics — a task complicated by missing prints, faded and oil-stained manuals, plus 52 years of undocumented modifications.

Not only do problems arise from the complex nature of our designs, they also develop through human error. Somebody enters the wrong keystroke along the supply chain and like magic, you get the wrong sized coupler. Critical delivery dates get mixed up, parts arrive damaged, or any of a dozen other scenarios strike.

In a world like ours, few organizations are better equipped to help solve problems than a knowledge-based distributor. Unlike their manufacturer partners, distributors offer solutions from a myriad of sources. They consider it their duty to “screen” supply sources. Distributors informally benchmark product quality, delivery terms, and other details transparent to the end user.

Once a system is in place and startup is underway, knowledge-based distributors serve as the focal point for problem solving and a powerful conduit of information, providing information flow superior to direct connection. Here's why: The distributor understands our environment. They know the operator's background, the maintenance group's training investment, and the complexity of the engineer's last three projects. And it's their job to have a similar comprehension of the manufacturer's world: The distributor knows to call “Joe in product development” and what to do if “Joe” is on vacation.

Times of turmoil

Distributors can be particularly helpful during times of turmoil. Many have developed procedures and policies to deal with customer issues, regardless of cause. Steve Cloud, CEO of IBT Inc., Merriam, Kans., a longtime Power Transmission Distributors Association (PTDA) member, expresses the sentiments of many knowledge-based distributors: “When a problem appears, we assume ownership. It doesn't matter if it's a vendor issue, customer issue, or something else. We have a plan for serving as the customer's front line resource for solving problems. Technical support people, freight experts, and our top level management team all become a resource in getting things fixed.”

Disaster planning 101

By knowing the answers to these three simple questions, many problems can be avoided.

Who is our point of contact if something doesn't work?

Remember: Problems come knocking at all times of day and night, including weekends. Strange as it seems, many folks haven't identified those emergency numbers. Make a contingency plan — and define the frequency of updates, status reports, and so on.

If this thing breaks, where do we get a new one?

Distributors understand spares, service stock, and emergency repair components. During disaster preparation meetings, companies should decide how long they could wait for a “what-cha-ma-call-it” repair kit. Your distributor should also share plans for keeping critical spares in their storeroom.

How do we track long delivery items?

Many of the components used in motion control systems are nonstandard components with relatively long delivery schedules. Work with your distributor to explore options for tracking critical, long-range orders and develop a strategy for minimizing delivery-day surprises.

Frank Hurtte consults at River Heights Consulting, Davenport, Iowa, specialists in knowledge-based distribution. He can be reached at frank@riverheightsconsulting.com.