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At a sizeable composting plant in western Australia, production engineers faced an operational challenge that will be recognised by manufacturing organisations the world over.

The failure of a critical part had caused automation equipment to grind to a halt. Unless engineers could find a spare, the composting company faced hugely inconvenient downtime – in Spring, its busiest time of year. Without an immediate resolution, the business risked losing tens of thousands of dollars in just a matter of days. 

"Unexpected downtime is a disaster in any manufacturing environment," says Rob Holloway, supply chain coordinator at EU Automation, one of the world's largest specialists in procuring essential and hard-to-find automation components. "It can result in the loss of production, wasted labour, and a failure to fulfil customer orders – which can cause reputational damage. In short, it is an operational nightmare on all fronts."

The Australian composting company's factory manager recognised the situation's urgency. He asked EU Automation to help find the required part – a Siemens central processing unit, described as the 'digital brain' of equipment on the production line. 

EU Automation's procurement specialists set about locating the part, accessing a vast global network of high-quality automation and control components. Eventually, the component was tracked down – but in the UK, more than 15,000 kilometres from where it was needed. The logistics team at EU Automation immediately set about organising an air freight courier to have the part shipped to its destination. But such was the mounting cost of the downtime at the composting plant, the Australian factory manager decided to board a flight to the UK to retrieve the part.

"We had never seen anything like it," says Rob Holloway. "The customer realised he could shave a couple of days off the time it would take to ship the part by courier, so he immediately embarked on a journey halfway around the world. Our task was to ensure the part was safely in our hands for when he arrived and then to help him get back home in the shortest possible time."

Overcoming unforeseen challenges

That was the plan, anyway. But by the time the customer had landed at London Heathrow, he received the unfortunate news that a second machine had failed at the composting plant, requiring the same spare part. EU Automation was alert to the problem, using its contacts to find a second, identical component. Employees were then dispatched from the company's headquarters in Frankfurt to collect the parts just in time for the customer's arrival.

"The spare parts business is as much about people as it is products – and personal service goes a long way," says Rob Holloway. "We felt we had an obligation to help the customer find a second part, as he had made such an effort to get to us in the shortest possible time. When he walked into our office, he said, 'our factory depends on these parts', and we were delighted to have been able to help out."

EU Automation's finance team then worked through the night with their counterparts at the production site in Australia to ensure that payment was transferred. Having helped secure a hotel, EU Automation sorted travel arrangements to get the factory manager back to the airport for a flight back home the next day, carrying the parts on board in hand luggage. The round trip was completed in just over 72 hours – quicker than possible through courier – eliminating the chance of any damage or losses.

"The factory manager was greeted as a hero upon his return," recalls Rob Holloway. "The company performed some calculations, and it turned out that he had saved several thousand dollars, even accounting for all the travel costs. It greatly impacted the company's profitability at an important time of the year."

From EU Automation's perspective, the story illustrates the power of partnership when dealing with supply chain issues. "If we were a company that just operated via automated systems, we would never have been able to respond in the way we did," says Rob Holloway. "Many members of our team – from procurement experts to logistics specialists – went above and beyond the call of duty to help the customer achieve his aims. In this case, the customer benefited from having can-do individuals as his points of contact to help with all the issues at hand. It showed the immense value of personal relationships and high-quality service."

Recognising ‘Factory Heroes’

The difficulties faced by the Australian composting company illustrate a universal truth: parts shortages can potentially cause severe problems for manufacturing organisations in terms of downtime, lost production, and lost revenue. Moreover, the people responsible for maintaining a robust supply chain often perform strenuous efforts to minimise unplanned stoppages.

These factors have inspired EU Automation to launch its "Factory Hero" campaign to encourage recognition of unsung heroes in the manufacturing sector. "We want to spotlight the role that so many people perform daily to keep the wheels of industry turning," explains Rob Holloway. "This could be a factory manager, maintenance engineer, or procurement specialist: we're looking for the real problem solvers who can think on their feet to get things back up and running while others are still scratching their heads. They are the unsung heroes in our industry."

The Factory Hero digital campaign features an unassuming chap called Jeff who – like the Australian plant manager - can source a vital part quickly via EU Automation and thus earns the gratitude of his colleagues. Witnessing Jeff's story encourages people to nominate their own Factory Hero. EU Automation will then arrange for those nominated to receive a certificate with a personalised message from the colleague who suggested them. 

"We want to encourage our customers to give credit to the individuals within their teams who are building the relationships that will make their company more agile and more competitive in the face of increasing supply chain challenges," concludes Rob Holloway.

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