Remote assistance is an increasingly common element of many service contracts and could cut days off your downtime
If you had told a pre-digital era printer that, in the future, in the event of a machine going down, an engineer from the manufacturer could be tinkering with it in a matter of minutes, images of speedy, futuristic modes of transport and fantastical teleportation devices might have sprung to mind. And if you’d told the same printer that this engineer would also be able to identify a problem with a machine before even its owner had realised it needed attention, it might have blown their mind.
This future has, of course, very much arrived. The advent of broadband and software-driven machines means that remote maintenance is now a feature of many service contracts for new equipment. In the past, a malfunctioning machine would have pretty much always required an engineer call-out from the manufacturer or its local agent, but today, this same engineer can use data sent directly from the machine to diagnose the root cause of a problem, and perhaps even resolve it, by proxy.
And the latest offerings go even further; for example, Heidelberg announced at Drupa that it is to introduce a service whereby it continually monitors data sent from new machines to identify anomalies before they become problematic.
The range of services on offer varies from one manufacturer to another. Some offer just remote diagnostics, some offer remote repair, where possible, and some offer a preventative analysis service, similar to the one Heidelberg is planning to introduce.
So, when deciding which manufacturer’s kit to go with, printers would do very well to consider exactly what level of service they require and explore what each of the potential suppliers has to offer.
The most desirable option might appear to be the full bells-and-whistles service, whereby the machine’s manufacturer monitors production data in order to spot any warning signs as soon as they occur.
Doug Gray, managing director at Cambrian Printers, is convinced of the value of this kind of remote service in reducing human error-induced downtime by keeping an eye on machine components that employees might overlook. "In any print company, I guarantee, across the three or four shifts, you’ll have one runner, one fiddler and one maintenance man," he explains. "There’s always someone who takes pride in looking after the press, but there’s also always one who runs on regardless, even if it’s making a lot more noise, and one who has to adjust every setting on the press whether it needs doing or not.
"Constant remote monitoring is a way of keeping all three of these characters in check."
However, Heidelberg’s Remote Monitoring service will not launch for at least another 12 months, so anyone wanting a fully comprehensive preventative monitoring service will have to wait. And anyway, given how dramatically basing one’s decision on this criterion is likely to restrict your options, it might be wise to put this option on the back burner.
Also, the more sophisticated the remote servicing package, the more it is likely to cost and, in many cases, the financial outlay may not be worthwhile. Heidelberg contracts manager Guy Elliott predicts Remote Monitoring will cost around 10%-15% more than the company’s next most comprehensive remote service package, pointing out that it’s likely to be most appreciated by those with a focus on continuous production.
"There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be suitable for every customer," he says. "But obviously, most keen will be the bigger, 24/7 operations, particularly those who want contracts guaranteeing a high level of productivity."
For those who don’t fit this description, and who don’t want to restrict their options or blow the budget, the other two broad types of remote service on offer – ones that diagnose problems and repair them and ones that just diagnose them – will be of more interest.
Again the most obvious logic seems to be to get the most sophisticated package for your money and so choose a manufacturer accordingly. And with more vendors offering remote repair on top of diagnostics, the options are much broader and so there is a compelling case for holding out for this. After all, where a breakdown can be resolved remotely, this will save the printer hours – or perhaps even days – of downtime.
Rob Walker, managing director at RJ Design Associates, explains that this was the positive outcome for his company, when its Agfa M-Press Leopard had a hiccup recently.
"We had a power supply crash which created a software issue, so we got an engineer based in Belgium to dial into the machine," says Walker. "Because it happened at the weekend, without remote access, it would have taken at least 24 hours to resolve, but it only took the engineer in Belgium about 40 minutes."
It is where a software glitch has occurred that remote repair will be most effective, confirms Martin Prior, customer support and operations manager at Fujifilm.
"Certainly with XMF workflow we fix more than 80% of the calls that come in remotely," he says, suggesting, then, that it is when shopping for software packages that printers should place a high priority on remote fixing.
Problems with electronic aspects of a machine can also sometimes be resolved remotely, explains Prior, citing the resetting of confused sensors on platesetters as an example.
However, he goes on to point out that there are only so many instances where remote repair will be possible, due to the fact that it’s very difficult to correct mechanical problems, such as plate jams and laser issues, without getting hands-on with the machine, toolkit in hand. "To be quite honest, we can do a lot more monitoring than doing with remote service," he says.
Heidelberg’s Elliott confirms that the reach of remote fixing is necessarily limited. "Remote repair might work for electronics issues, such as problems with lasers, but it’s hard to resolve mechanical issues remotely," he says. "So in fact, in most instances it will be necessary to despatch an engineer to solve the problem."
Which isn’t to say that remote service is in reality less impressive than it sounds. In fact, explain Prior and Elliott, the ability to determine straightaway what has gone wrong is actually the whole point. In this way, the printer might be able to resolve the issue themselves, or at least create a workaround until an engineer turns up. And when the engineer is called out, they will be much better equipped, with the right tools and parts to resolve the issue.
"You can give more information to the customer and engineer if you’ve already worked out what the problem is, which ensures that the engineer has a good head-start," says Prior.
"Before you were totally dependent on someone coming to assess the machine first and then they’d think ‘oh, now I need to order this part’," agrees Cambrian’s Gray. "So you were talking days longer, sometimes, than with remote diagnosis."
In light of this, the most pressing question a printer should perhaps be asking of its service provider, then, should be: how extensive its diagnostic capabilities are, and how effectively it backs this up.
Printers should ask plenty of questions about which bits and pieces the remote diagnostics can actually access, advises Sunin Patel, technical manager at Taws Printers. "When we went out to market to replace a Ricoh C900, the remote diagnostics of other digital machines seemed to be less comprehensive than Ricoh’s; they didn’t always monitor as many different aspects of operation," he says. "It’s very easy for a manufacturer to say they’ve got remote services, but you need to look at exactly what’s being offered."
Similarly, says Fujifilm’s Prior, it’s easy for a manufacturer to offer impressive-sounding remote service contracts without backing them up with the required in-person support. Remote service should enhance hands-on intervention not replace it, he explains, and any contract that proposes to do the latter, given that this saves the manufacturer more time and money than the printer, should be avoided.
"There are two versions of the remote service story: there’s the version where you make sure the engineer gets on site with the right parts – he’s got more information, he’s up to speed – and there’s also the other scenario, where you prevent a visit," says Prior. "That’s obviously a cost-effective way of managing a service operation, if you’re cutting back on staff, but it’s not the best way of looking after machines. So you need to check things like how many engineers the manufacturer has in the country."
So, it’s worth bearing in mind that the most obviously sophisticated or comprehensive service is not always going to be the best for your business.
Certainly the latest breed of preventative remote service offerings will, in their ability to keep downtime to an absolute minimum, prove a godsend for those printers with almost non-stop production at the centre of their business models. And it’s possible that this kind of offering might soon be a standard feature of all fairly comprehensive service contracts, at no extra cost. A remote fixing capability is also undeniably a handy feature in certain scenarios, and will perhaps too soon become a standard offering.
But what printers would be really well-advised to look at it seems, is just how comprehensive a manufacturer’s remote diagnostic capabilities are. And crucially, printers will need to ask the same questions about engineer staffing and skill levels as they always have. While replacing some aspects of a maintenance procedure with data analysis and regulation is helpful, there is it seems still no beating a human touch.