Maximising automation benefits: Key learnings from Swisslog System operations teams

By Paul Woodward, maintenance manager, Swisslog Australia

If it’s automated, why do we need a system operations team?

That’s a fair question. If everything is running smoothly and ‘as expected’ at an automated plant, it may feel like there isn’t much need for a system operations team (sometimes led by a site manager). But look below the surface.

In most cases, achieving a state where everything is running smoothly is due to the hard work of not just the system operations team, but also teams of technicians and maintenance staff, from both the automation provider, and the client.

Having an advanced automated system deliver maximum benefits is a bit like a high performance engine – it will give you top performance, but you have to keep it tuned, and you have to jump on any problem and fix it ASAP.

A system operations team’s role in maximising automation benefits comes in two main forms: problem solving, and preventative maintenance.

Problem solving

Problem solving is par for the course for system operations teams. Whenever an unexpected fault occurs, without a system operations team, the company would need to call in a technician. Even if the response is speedy, there will always be a time delay, as the technician travels to the site, leading to increased downtime and potential loss of revenue.

With a system operations team, the problem-solving process can begin immediately. And it can be done by someone who knows the intricacies of that particular site, and is therefore more likely to solve the problem faster and more effectively.

Real example: A very Wi-Fi merry Christmas

One of our major food and beverage clients in Australia was experiencing an unexpected series of ‘excessive trolley’ comms errors on the monorail system, right before the Christmas peak, when demand is at a yearly high. We had to work quickly, because the client was nervous about not meeting customer commitment orders at one of the busiest times of year. An initial diagnosis pointed to external interference with the Wi-Fi system. After establishing that both Wi-Fi points were operating correctly, the system operations team liaised with senior management from Swisslog and from the client, to arrange a complete site radio frequency interference survey. In collaboration with an external party, Swisslog’s software controls team and onsite technicians confirmed that the microwave motion sensors for the high bay warehouse LED lighting were operating across the same channel on the 5Ghz frequency band as one of the monorail Access Points (APs) therefore causing severe interference and rendering that monorail AP non-functional. We liaised between Swisslog and the client’s teams, and several solutions were proposed. The client’s preferred solution was to fix both monorail access points to two separate channels on the 5Ghz band, both different from the channel that the sensors operate on. This solution was implemented in mid-December, and there have been no further outages since then. The client met all customer distribution commitments over the Christmas and New Year period, and was very happy a resolution was found swiftly.

Preventative maintenance

Adept problem-solving skills are an essential part of any system operations team, and the flip side of this equation is ensuring an intelligent preventative maintenance programme is in place.

Preventative maintenance means equipment is serviced before any faults or issues occur. Data gathered by sensors and analysed through an intelligent software programme, such as Swisslog’s modular SynQ Warehouse Management System (WMS), can provide highly accurate recommendations on the best times to perform preventative maintenance.

Key learnings from Swisslog System operations teams

Swisslog system operations teams are working hard every day to solve problems and optimise preventative maintenance programmes to prevent future issues from occurring. Below are some key learnings from experienced system operations teams across the globe:

• Communication and a robust maintenance program are major contributors to a successful site.

• Having an engaged maintenance team that is in tune with the customer is vital. Building team morale to begin with is a priority, because a happy team is a productive team.

• Put safety first, and ensure your entire team, plus all contractors, embody a safety-first attitude at all times.

• Gaining the customer’s complete faith and trust goes a long way to establishing open and honest dialogue. Listening to the customer is always important, but it’s equally important that they trust you to find the best solution.

• Feedback on how the automation solution is performing should be documented and communicated out on a regular basis. Any issues should be brought to the customer’s attention immediately to ensure all parties are aware of any problems and what solutions are in place or are being actioned.

• Celebrate all wins, no matter how small. The customer needs to know that what is happening in the background is having an influence on the way their business runs. Positive commentary gains confidence from the customer, especially when we find a solution to a problem they have presented to us.

• Always be on the lookout for improvement opportunities in both processes or equipment performance.

So, while a system operations team for an automated warehousing or logistics site may fly under the radar when things are running smoothly, they are actually working hard to keep things that way!

And, at the end of the day, there is no greater satisfaction than a happy client. Receiving positive feedback from the client (we sometimes get this directly, and sometimes it comes from the local Managing Director, who has heard it from the client’s senior management team) is the ultimate recognition for a job well done.