Kris Oldland, Editor-in-Chief Field Service News asks isn’t it about time we learnt to manage spare parts as well as we can manage the mobile workforce?
When looking through the list of topics discussed in most field service conferences it seems that there is one area that is often heavily overlooked - which is namely the topic of parts distribution. So often we talk about the importance of getting the right engineer, with the right skills to the right job and getting them there on time.
Of course it’s all a moot point if they don’t have the right parts needed to complete the job.
Yet head to any industry event, or look through the pages of any industry journal (including even our own humble offering) and you will find far more content that is weighted towards managing the dispatch of engineers than you will see focussed on the dispatching the parts that they need to do their job.
In our defence it’s an easy trap to fall into - there are just so many more voices shouting about mobile workforce management than there are shouting about parts management and service logistics.
Companies such as FedEx, Keuhne Nagel and UPS have all stepped up to the plate to try and help resolve some of the pain points felt by field service organisations in relation to their parts delivery.
Firstly, the number of companies that can offer the ability to deliver across international borders and to the type of time scales that field service organisations require are very few and far between. Secondly, within such organisations, field service and parts management is really just a very small component of their wider operations, so perhaps gets a touch overlooked.
Yet, slowly that is beginning to change.
Companies such as FedEx, Keuhne Nagel and UPS have all stepped up to the plate to try and help resolve some of the pain points felt by field service organisations in relation to their parts delivery. Also we are beginning to see more and more senior logistics professionals become focussed on field service as a sector.
One such individual is Tim Helsen, Netherlands Country Manager, UPS who was speaking recently at the Field Service Europe conference held in Amsterdam, and I was pleased to receive his invite to connect over a coffee at the event to gain his perspective of how companies such as UPS can help field service companies overcome the perennial challenge of cumbersome and ineffective parts management and logistics.
“There are a couple of key trends as we see it,” Helsen commented when asked on why so many companies seemed to struggle getting spare parts into the hands of their engineers, or even in some cases just delivering parts to their customers.
“Firstly, we are seeing a large number of companies telling us that their customers are demanding better aftermarket solutions from them, yet when we spoke to those exact same companies they were not treating the aftermarket side of their business as a priority.”
78% of companies stated that effective spare parts management and delivery was highly sought after by their customers but only 12% were treating this area as a priority, so there is clearly a disconnect
Having spent time further investigating this disconnect Helsen believes that the causes are the pragmatic results of a number external pressures on field service organisations.
He identifies the challenges of recruiting, training and maintaining field engineers, who are themselves working on ever more complicated devices, as a key reason why companies naturally tend to push their focus, and indeed their infrastructure towards what he describes as ‘simply getting their guys out on the road.’ As such, parts management is often the neglected cousin.
However, this approach, whilst clearly being endemic to our industry is one of purest folly. In his presentation, given a little earlier in the day, Helsen went through a number of case studies highlighting how paying such little heed to the delivery of parts coukld have a dramatic knock on effect when it comes to the performance of field engineers.
Discussing how they had worked with Snap-On in the UK he explained; “They had 400 engineers and up until we began working with them those engineers would get their goods delivered at home. So whilst they were scheduled to start work at 8am, they would be waiting in between 8 and 10am.”
“The solution that we offered them was ‘you know which customers in the day you know you are going to help so we can redirect those packages so you don’t have to wait at home’. The packages will then be delivered to the closest proximity of that customer - which is typically between 5 and 10 km away maximum.”
The UPS solution also allows the technicians to pick up from locations such as petrol stations and newsagents which expands the available working hours adding additional flexibility (which can be a big benefit to customers and engineers alike) plus UPS also provide a dedicated app which allows for parts tracking but also allows engineers to redirect packages in real time.
Giving field technicians a means to also adapt the collection of any parts they need in reflection of such changes is a vital tool that should be welcomed with open arms by field service companies.
In fact, it could even be argued that seeing as parts should really be more easily managed than people, it’s incredible that such solutions are only now beginning to become part of the fabric of field service management.
For me, it seems that the biggest failing we have all undertaken - practitioners, vendors and media alike, is to treat parts management and service logistics as a separate entity to workforce management. Admittedly there are software platforms that incorporate parts management alongside FSM tools, Astea comes to mind as one solution that offers such a solution, but even then how closely aligned is it to the actual delivery of parts?
How many field service companies have fully integrated parts handling and delivery into their mobile workforce management systems?
Yet the benefits of doing so are clearly vast.
As Holden explains “If you look at the time savings in the magnitude of saving 80 minutes a day and multiply it by the number of engineers they have, this is a saving of anywhere between 2 and 6% of the total staffing of their engineers.”
The technology is available, and essentially the argument has already been won by the workforce scheduling vendors
Indeed, as I talk to Helsen, I find myself nodding in agreement as not only does his argument very easily stack up, but it’s almost a word for word a repetition of the arguments put forward by the scheduling engine providers.
Arguments which by now most in the field service industry are very well versed in to the point that they’re universally accepted as common sense.
The technology is available, and essentially the argument has already been won by the workforce scheduling vendors - even many SMBs now utilise some form of workforce optimisation, because the R.O.I is clear to see.
It seems the next easy win for field service companies looking to improve efficiency margins is quite simple - revisit your parts management and service logistics chain and put the same emphasis on getting the right parts to the right place at the right time as you do getting engineers - surely it’s about time we were able to get parts in the right place as well as we can people?