Author Topic: Support for Obsolete Electronics  (Read 2150 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline Jon Chandler

  • Frequent Contributor
  • **
  • Posts: 540
    • Throw Away PIC
Support for Obsolete Electronics
« on: September 28, 2011, 07:25:17 pm »
A piece of industrial electronics I designed for a previous employer has failed after 15 years, possibly caused by a nearby lightening strike.  There's no one at my previous employer who has any clue about this system, and worse yet, they destroyed any records of the project during a recent move.  Their response to the customer after some very rudimentary troubleshooting was a suggestion to buy a new measurement system, which was really not an answer at all as a new system doesn't duplicate any of the required functions.

They asked me for some help and then left it up to me to make whatever arrangements I like with the customer.

I have contacted the EE who designed the main circuit board and probable culprit of this system.  Fortunately, he still has schematics for some version of the board.  It may not be exactly the same but the changes if any will be minor, so troubleshooting to the component level is possible.  My former employer happens to have 2 assembled boards (of some version) that are of no use to them that they are willing to give me.  If the boards are in fact the same version, some parts may need to be changed for this application (low and high-pass filtering).

The system (a permanently installed monitoring system) is bolted to a plant wall not far from the middle of nowhere.  A trip there would be expensive, so I hope not to have to go there.  Troubleshooting of the system may find some other faults than the board - a power supply or something easily replaced.  Their technicians are capable of doing this under my guidance.  If it is a problem with the circuit board, it can be removed pretty easily and sent to me for repair or replacement.  Replacement requires the 2 boards side-by-side to identify any differences in component values.  Somewhere between minutes and hours could be involved, particularly if the available boards aren't the same version.

The major functions of the system can be duplicated with modules from another vendor.  This requires system integration, rewiring and changes to the operating procedure.  Not all of the functions would be duplicated but this approach provides the critical function.  This is an expensive option.

So here's my quandary.   How would you charge for something like this?  If my former employer could provide support, they would charge a high rate to do so.  I could charge nothing, particularly since the replacement boards were given to me at no charge.  I could charge time & materials and either give them the circuit board or put some value on it.  Or I could hold them hostage and charge some significant fraction of what change to a different system would cost.  It's unlikely that I'll have any other dealings with this customer.

I'm leaning towards time and materials plus some charge for the board but I'm curious what others would do in this situation.  I expect that a fair amount of time is going to be required because some documentation will have to be re-created for the on-site troubleshooting, board swap-out and adjustments.  The customer may feel that even this is a rip-off, but he may be used to paying yearly warranty and support charges on other data collectors from my previous employer.  On the other hand, they may be relieved that an expensive upgrade isn't required.

when designing products, do you think about what will happen down the road?  What happens if they break and nobody is left with the company who knows anything about it?  I never considered this 15 years ago...

Thanks for any comments.
 

Offline gregariz

  • Frequent Contributor
  • **
  • Posts: 547
  • Country: us
Re: Support for Obsolete Electronics
« Reply #1 on: September 28, 2011, 08:07:10 pm »
IMO your former employers response to the customer to buy a new measurement system was the correct one. Any product has a finite life for which support will be offered.

It is bad management to let equipment support expire with no backup. In a prior job we had a secure door system that was out of support so we went and bought up a heap of spares to enable us to service it until a suitable alternative became available down the road. Sounds like the customer had no plan.

If you've got the knowledge and have gone to the trouble to track down a spare board, even if given to you, its reasonable that you charge for that board. You are not a charity. Time and materials are a given.

If it were me I would offer a choice to the customer: to design a new system for the customer using supported parts or evaluate the possibility for repair of the existing system by having them send you the suspect board to see if that is actually the problem. You might also offer to sell them the spare boards as backups if that is the problem.

Your case kind of reminded me of a chocolate factory that had a custom made vacuum tube metal particle detector in it. It was essentially unservicable and the tubes were scarce so they had extended downtimes when if failed. Not the way to run your business.



 

Offline FreeThinker

  • Frequent Contributor
  • **
  • Posts: 791
  • Country: england
  • Truth through Thought
Re: Support for Obsolete Electronics
« Reply #2 on: September 28, 2011, 08:54:37 pm »
True Story:
A local textile firm spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on a New machine, six months in and it fails costing big bucks per day in downtime.
Engineer flies out from Germany, Taxi to the company door and within 15mins has the fault sorted and is back in a taxi to the airport. Then the invoice arrives.... over £6000. The MD rings the Support company to question the cost and demands a cost breakdown. Half an hour later he has in his hand a Fax (yes a fax) as follows:-
Callout FREE
Travel  FREE
Engineers Time and Knowledge £6000
Thank You

In other words you CANNOT cost for experience and knowledge. If you fix  the system then you need a boat load of cash because you will be thier first port of call in the future and this can only end in pain. If they do not like the cost their option is to replace the system, no loss to you. If they get you to repair it you can have a nice little earner with possible future revenue (unless you choose not too). The reality is it could turn into a poison chalice and you need to protect yourself, Stick them with a big bill, see how it flies. If they swallow it make sure they understand it is a one off take the money and enjoy! There is no love in business.
Machines were mice and Men were lions once upon a time, but now that it's the opposite it's twice upon a time.
MOONDOG
 

Alex

  • Guest
Re: Support for Obsolete Electronics
« Reply #3 on: September 28, 2011, 09:30:37 pm »
I was on the side of the customer recently with an oxygen and combustible gases monitoring unit. I agree with you that replying with a product catalogue is not the best option for high value items. The last thing you want is a customer that thinks you don't care who incidentally is what keeps the company going. I also think you did your part by contributing towards complete documentation when at that company. I shout this on a daily basis until it rings in their ears at night. They thank you after..surprise surprise...15 years!

I will refrain from specific recommendations as I can't know enough on a forum, especially everyone's agenda.

Costing physical goods is straightforward and really, with some experience you can't go wrong. However, there are a quite a few parties involved here, would you buy the golden egg, or the hen?
« Last Edit: September 28, 2011, 09:43:02 pm by Alex »
 

Offline Precisiontools

  • Regular Contributor
  • *
  • Posts: 90
  • Country: au
    • PrecisionTools's Blog
Re: Support for Obsolete Electronics
« Reply #4 on: September 29, 2011, 12:21:04 am »
Whatever you do, don't do the job cheap. The bean counters will take advantage of this and the equipment will come back again to haunt you. Remember its been in service for 15 years...its paid its way, probably handsomely. I would charge a serious amount...not ridiculous, but enough to make management or the bean counters to take notice. If you don't want to provide future support, make them aware that future issues will only get more expensive due to the obsolescence of the components required for their manufacture.
 

Offline IanB

  • Super Contributor
  • ***
  • Posts: 9541
  • Country: us
Re: Support for Obsolete Electronics
« Reply #5 on: September 29, 2011, 01:51:24 am »
So here's my quandary.   How would you charge for something like this?  If my former employer could provide support, they would charge a high rate to do so.  I could charge nothing, particularly since the replacement boards were given to me at no charge.  I could charge time & materials and either give them the circuit board or put some value on it.  Or I could hold them hostage and charge some significant fraction of what change to a different system would cost.  It's unlikely that I'll have any other dealings with this customer.
You should be professional and you should attempt to construct positive transactions with all concerned. You can never know when points banked might come back to benefit you in the future.

Your previous employer probably is only too grateful to have this problem taken off their hands. Act graciously with them, since if you assist the customer you are doing them a favour. If they offer the spare parts to you free of charge that is a big hint that they are happy for you to do this favour for them. Be grateful that sanity and common sense prevails.

With regards to the customer in possession of the faulty equipment, you do not need to be bashful. You should offer your professional services charged at an appropriate hourly rate, with replacement parts and any travel and living expenses reimbursed at cost. As a professional you should charge for your time, you don't need to add silly markups to hardware purchases. That will just be viewed as gouging. If you are not sure what an appropriate hourly rate for consulting services is, or how to draw up a suitable contract, consult with a lawyer or accountant. If you do a professional job, billed in a professional way, you will build a bridge there too that might stand you in good stead in the future (as I said, you can never know what the future might hold). Also, don't be scared of travelling to site. If you happen to think that is the most expedient solution, ask the client if they agree and are willing to reimburse the T&L costs.

The biggest mistake in situations like this is to be too bashful. As a private individual, what you think is "expensive" might be seen as "pocket change" to a big organization with down time piling up. Just be up front with them, offer a professional service at sensible rates, and let them decide what is expensive and what is not. This is not your problem, it is their problem.
I'm not an EE--what am I doing here?
 

Offline SgtRock

  • Supporter
  • ****
  • Posts: 1200
  • Country: us
Re: Support for Obsolete Electronics
« Reply #6 on: September 29, 2011, 05:53:36 am »
Dear Jon Chandler:

--I am not an EE, but I do have a lot of business experience, that may have applicability in this case. I have held a number of middle level positions where, technical knowledge, estimation, costing, BOM and negotiations came into play. Later these experiences were of great help when I was the VP of a large marketing company representing stamping and casting Mfgrs. in the Southeast. This experience may not seem related but it allows me to have a feel for situations.

--My advice is going to be aimed more towards helping you establish constraints on the range of possible costs to the customer. The customer for understandable reasons does not want to purchase a new system. It does not do all that he wants, is expensive, requires employees to adjust, and may have other surprises.

--You are uniquely suited to this task. Your price should be somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of the price of a new system. Submit a written bid. Go in somewhat high and negotiate down, if necessary. All travel, lodging and expenses are on the customer. Call backs (when your fault) are on you. Think about staging with periodic percentage draws, if appropriate. Give due thought to charges for keeping the equipment in operation. If you get the job, make sure to get a written PO (purchase order), before proceeding.

--The customer has a finite number of concerns. Address them. Direct voice contact with the person making the decision is important. If you can construct a win win senario you may get additional work from this customer, or he may recommend you to others.

"There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you've made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you've made a discovery." Enrico Fermi

Best Regards
Clear Ether
 


Share me

Digg  Facebook  SlashDot  Delicious  Technorati  Twitter  Google  Yahoo
Smf