Do it in-house or call the specialist?

Optimizing service costs for high-voltage equipment

When our washing machine started making strange noises, my wife expected an easy fix by one of the finest engineers around – at virtually no cost! After suitable inducement,  most of my weekend was spent disassembling (the hard way) , diagnosing,   improvising tools,  fixtures and spare parts, struggling in un-natural positions, cutting myself, re-assembling and testing until eventually – a pyrrhic* victory! Unfortunately, but predictably, my success was temporary.

A few weeks later, the washing machine repair man came, saw, heard, disassembled, fixed both the problem and also its root cause, re-assembled and tested in just 30 minutes. My wife thought $120 was expensive for just 30 minutes, but you and I know this was outstanding value for money – considering the real value of time I lost, and the alternative uses for that time.

The lessons for me – take on jobs that are in line with your core competence and where you have the experience. Outsource those you have never done before, or forgotten how to, especially those that impact safety, quality or reliability. If you cannot quickly or fully diagnose it, outsourcing to an expert would most certainly bring better results – and also optimize costs!

Similar experiences can be found in the high voltage transmission world.  Here is a real case.

A customer decided to fit a spare drive mechanism to one phase of a 245kV minimum-oil circuit breaker.  With hindsight, the deployed staff had insufficient experience and training to undertake this specialist task. They were unaware that the drive could be used for a number of different breakers, and for each breaker type the drive needed adjustment (using special tools and expertise) for spring energy, speed and damping.  When tested, the breaker would not latch closed, a symptom of an incorrect damper setting, or a damaged damper.

In this situation, the “horses for courses”** principle might have saved the day, and a lot of costs, assuming a request for phone or field support had been made to the experts.  Instead, the operating rod screw was adjusted for increased length, which made the problem worse. The breaker over-stroked on close, which damaged critical components in the close latch assembly, the close damper and other elements within the breaker. With a little persistence, the close latch was destroyed.

Eventually, a phone discussion with ABB experts allowed an initial diagnosis of the potential root causes, based on which appropriate spares were taken to site.  The mechanism turned out to be a much older version, requiring an upgrade kit to enable fitting of the revised damper design, amongst other improvements, which the customer was unaware of.  The site visit was used to complete the diagnosis, and the appropriate set of spares was ordered.

On arrival of the spares, ABB experts fully restored and upgraded the breaker. Arguably the job was done at optimum speed and cost. At that point, the breaker could not be better assured of fully meeting the customer’s expectations for dependability and reliability.

The customer contracted ABB to evaluate other breakers of the same type, in critical locations, not so much because of internal limitations, but because it was recognized as the most cost effective option to overcome any and all surprises that could occur with middle-aged equipment.

Clearly, specialization, combined with recent repeat experience will deliver significantly better cost efficiencies. A strategy which directs in-house resources towards less complex and repetitive jobs, while outsourcing more complex or infrequent jobs to an OEM, seems most likely to delivery optimum service costs.


*A pyrrhic victory is one achieved at such cost that it can hardly be thought of as a triumph.

**Horses for courses: An English expression from horse racing, which means betting on the best qualified individual for the task in hand.

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About the author

David Roby

I am an Electrical Engineer specializing in high voltage switchgear and a member of Australian Standards Committees and CIGRE Panels in Australia. I have extensive experience managing successful teams in sales, manufacturing, projects, contract execution, innovation, R&D and field services. Currently I am the Global Product Manager responsible for ABB's high voltage switchgear services portfolio.
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