Know the feeling? The heating breaks down and when the handyman comes around, he whips out a piece of paper for the customer to sign to show they agree to the repairs – sometimes with terms and conditions attached that are as long as your arm. After hopefully successful repairs, he then pulls out another wad of paper detailing exactly what was done – and expects this to be signed as well. And where does all the paperwork end up? It’s still quite common for information to have to be transferred manually onto invoices before filing, sometimes with a yellow carbon copy going to accounts, a blue one going to the warehouse, and a variety of other copies going to other departments. Standard everyday procedures, it seems. But if this isn’t the heating, but repairs or maintenance for a huge industrial plant instead, things can really get complex. Some firms seem to treat their after sales function like a forgotten relative. When digital solutions come along, they’re the last ones to know. Yet the potential offered by digitalization is there for all to see. This was the motivation for a team of experts at the Göppingen-based Steinbeis Transfer Center Processes in Motion, spearheaded by its directors Prof. Dr.-Ing. Ben Marx, Prof. Dr. Christian Cseh, Prof. Dr. Rainer Elste, to work together on the development of a comprehensive digital service system. Its name: 4tfs (for technical field services).
Mader GmbH & Co. KG is an owner-managed specialist in compressed air systems and pneumatics based in Leinfelden (near Stuttgart). Apart from producing and selling its own products, Mader also carries out maintenance on the entire pressurized air systems operated by its customers. Until now, maintenance procedures were broadly carried out in line with the example described in the introduction. Maintenance and replacement parts contracts were always captured systematically, but then they were transferred to worksheets – pieces of paper that were filled in manually and transferred back to an ERP system afterwards. Not only was this process inflexible – especially if part of the planned routine changed – it also took up too much time, and each manual process had every potential to create administration errors. Controlling and assessing service efficiency was a long-winded task that could only be completed by going back through analog information.
The Steinbeis team adapted 4tfs to the specific procedures followed at Mader so that the entire service process can now be carried out without the need for any paper documentation whatsoever. Operators can view maintenance records for individual service technicians and if a replacement part is used, this gets logged instantly by the system. All necessary or requested servicing is shown in the right order alongside machine data, with important information on the operating environment. At the bottom of the screen is an area for customers to sign, just like confirming a parcel has been delivered by UPS. As Peter Maier, the managing director of Mader explains: “4tfs allows us to manage the service process more efficiently and eradicate the kinds of errors that are caused by jumping between bits of paper and PCs. Digitalizing the process means we can react more quickly and more flexibly to unscheduled requests and be more accommodating when it comes to customer requirements. The documentation is now seamless with a complete servicing history, so we can offer customers maximum transparency.”
4tfs is not tied to any specific type of hardware or the operating system used on a mobile end device, since it’s programmed as a web-based app with encrypted access rights. The experts at the Processes in Motion center also ensured that the system links directly into the ERP system used at Mader by working directly with the ERP provider.
The Steinbeis Transfer Center experts go beyond simply developing service applications or adapting them to individual requirements. There’s another aspect which Ben Marx highlights as crucial: the analysis phase. “It’s important to us to get a precise overview of the servicing procedures followed by our customers. Quite often we actually travel around with staff, visit workshops together, or interview clients with everyone else involved so we know what to adapt to the existing service process. This involves taking a holistic view and drawing on expertise and excellence in engineering, IT, and business administration, all of which is offered by the directors and project managers at our center.”
Of course launching an entire digital service system also requires a certain openness to change, especially from service technicians and the sales office. When asked if older employees tend to have problems adjusting, Maier answers: “My honest belief is that it’s not about how old people are, it depends how they react to innovations and change. We made sure our service technicians were involved in the project right from the start, and we were especially careful about asking the opinions of the people who were most likely to have their doubts, mainly due to their experience. It was clear to us that we’d need to win over those kinds of users because they’d be more likely to be critical. I think we did a good job with it.” The proof of the pudding is in the eating: Mader no longer uses yellow or blue copies of documents – and certainly nobody misses them.