If every automated material handling, distribution, and parcel handling system were “set it and forget it,” then downtime wouldn’t exist (and I wouldn’t be writing this article). Yet, as much as operations managers and equipment owners might wish this were the case, the reality is completely different.

In fact, as systems become more intricate and integrated — and as operations are increasingly reliant on their proper and continuous function to meet customer service level agreements (SLAs) — the potential financial losses associated with an equipment malfunction and subsequent unplanned downtime can be exponential.

To protect against such an occurrence, smart operations lay in a supply of spare parts that they stock on-site so as to be readily available should an issue arise. Additionally, many opt to contract for post-installation technical support from either the system’s integrator or original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

Both strategies are, in essence, insurance against the unexpected. Yet the challenges presented by the current, Covid-impacted operating environment — both in terms of dramatically extended lead times and challenges in hiring and retaining skilled automation and maintenance technicians —it’s a good idea to reassess those strategies and adjust where necessary to ensure the desired outcome: minimized downtime.

Stocking Spare Parts: The New Rule of Thumb

Historically, when a system is purchased, installed, and commissioned, the integrator and/or OEM include a list of recommended spare parts to be purchased and stored on-site. As a general rule of thumb, stocked quantities represent approximately 10% of a given component — within reason.

For example, if a motor-driven roller (MDR) conveyor system incorporates 10,000 rollers, then storing 1,000 spare rollers on-site is probably excessive (although some operations do). Pulleys or cables, on the other hand, are more prone to wear or damage, so storing 10% of the total used in the system isn’t an outrageous number. Similarly, most operations keep one (or maybe two) spare motors on hand.

Back when lead times ran roughly 8 to 12 weeks to replenish spare parts stock after being used to make a repair, these quantities were likely on point. Particularly as most integrators or OEMs could likely supply a back-up from their own inventory in a pinch.

However, within the past two years, lead times for any component that includes electronics or metal (think microchips and steel) have stretched out as far as 24 to even 36 weeks in some cases. That’s made it particularly hard for integrators and OEMs to maintain much stocked inventory, as most of their parts are committed to open orders. Gone are the days when an operation could confidently rely on an outside source for spares in a relatively reasonable timeframe.

In the “new normal” of the pandemic-impacted manufacturing and supply chain climate, a spare parts stocking strategy should be adjusted to compensate. That is, spend some time evaluating which parts — particularly those that are most critical to the function of the automated material handling system — have the longest lead times. Then invest in purchasing one or more of them now to increase the chance of their timely availability to in-house maintenance and repair technicians.

Sure, chances are there will be a 4- to 6-month wait before any parts ordered today actually arrive. But, in the interim, if only one (or two) of those components typically stocked onsite are used between now and then, another will already be on its way to replenish spares inventory sooner than later.

For operations managers who balk at taking on the additional expense of increasing the number of spares held in-house, it’s important to consider the alternative. That is, how much will unscheduled downtime associated with an equipment failure cost the organization? For many facilities, that number could be as high as several hundreds of thousands of dollars per hour. Spending a fraction of that on what essentially amounts to an insurance policy against downtime is a wise decision.

On-Demand Support: Expert Technical Assistance 24/7/365

Even just a decade ago, many distribution center and parcel handling operations had a relatively easy time staffing their maintenance and repairs team with qualified, skilled technicians. These personnel were experienced in both routine upkeep and emergency troubleshooting.

Since then, however, many of those professionals have reached retirement age (or chose to take early retirement when the pandemic emerged, out of concern for their health and well-being). Further, the automated systems themselves have become more complex and inter-connected, requiring a much higher degree of technical expertise and sophisticated computer programming skills.

Coupled with the overall labor shortages challenging organizations nationwide, many of today’s operations are staffed by fewer maintenance technicians who possess less hands-on troubleshooting experience than their predecessors. Many organizations have opted to supplement their in-house teams with third-party maintenance and repair service providers who also may be less familiar with an operation’s unique automated material handling system.

Given this, it’s a good idea to contract with either the system’s integrator or OEM for emergency technical support services. Certain suppliers, including DCS, offer an annual support package that includes direct interaction with an assigned engineer who is fully up-to-speed on an operation’s unique installation.

Support calls from in-house or contract maintenance personnel are returned directly by that designated support engineer (or a colleague also familiar with the system, should the primary contact be unavailable) within a short period of time, around the clock. Further, via remote connection technology, the support engineer can connect to the system in real-time, allowing them to personally see faults or other error messages.

With this off-site expertise available 24/7/365, in-house maintenance technicians get a second pair of eyes on the situation (albeit remotely), and expert guidance that targets the most likely cause(s) of the issue for the fastest resolution. And, should the situation not be resolvable via a call, the support engineer will travel to the site as quickly as possible to fix the problem. Either way, strategically engaging expert technical support for troubleshooting is another way to mitigate against unexpected downtime and associated financial losses.

Need help assessing and updating your operation’s spare parts and support strategies? Connect with DCS.


Bill DeYoung - Customer Service Manager for Conveyor Solutions and Supply Chain ConsultantsBill DeYoung, Customer Service Manager, bill@designedconveyor.com

Bill DeYoung serves as the Customer Service Manager for Designed Conveyor Systems and brings to the team 10+ years of experience in the material handling industry. His role is to lead the Customer Service team to provide world-class support to the DCS customers. This support includes training on the system, providing on-site and remote support, providing recommendations, and supply of spare parts to ensure the system operates as it is designed. When Bill is not in the office, you can find him spending time with his wife and three sons who enjoy exploring nature, especially the mountains.