Faulty drive? Who you gonna call?

The number of companies making electronic variable drives and servo drives has decreased dramatically. This raises the problem of what to do when they break. Matt McDonald reports.

Electronic variable drives are devices used to vary the speed of electric motors. They come in many sizes and are used to operate everything from satellite dishes to CNC machines in a factory.

“They are obscure, very complex systems that do a lot of things most people are not aware of,” Darius Kowalewski of Data Factory told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

This complexity means that they are not easy to fix. And, like all electronic components, it is a sure bet that they will occasionally need fixing.

So who can fix them? According to Kowalewski, Data Factory can, but not many other people can.

“We are weird,” he proudly stated. “That’s the upside of the business. There’s no competition because no one is crazy enough to compete. You can’t make a profit unless you really know what you are doing.”

The company consists of Kowalewski and just two other employees, an electrician who evaluates the problems with the drives and a technician who does the repairs.

All operations are overseen by Kowalewski who makes sure all work is meticulously planned and that all plans are followed to the letter.

While most repairs are carried out in the company’s Melbourne lab, there are occasional site visits. In such cases Kowalewski makes sure his team members “don’t become additional staff members for the client. They go there like a commando team with a very precisely defined task.”

He explained that this is the approach that has made it possible for the business to exist. And this is why Data Factory is the only business of its kind in the country.

“We are unique. We are good people to know,” he said.

“We are like a private hospital emergency ward…you hope you will never need it but if you have an accident it’s better to be in the emergency ward than on the side of the road.”

The obvious question is – Don’t the manufacturers of electronic drives offer repair services?

Not really, said Kowalewski.

“The world has changed. The manufacturers of this stuff are only in a very few geographic locations. That’s where they keep their expertise. It used to be distributed…,” he said.

While manufacturers may be able to send an engineer to fix a problem, there are just not enough to cover the planet and the waiting time could be unacceptable for any company wanting to make money.

Therefore, he explained, most of the support is done online or over the phone. But the helpdesk model doesn’t usually work for complex electronics.

Services offered

Data Factory can repair all types (AC or DC) of servo drives and electronic variable speed drives, as well as complex electronic boards.

Though the company serves the whole of Australia, by necessity most work is done at the company’s lab in Melbourne.

“Our strength is our workshop, our lab,” explained Kowalewski. “We have spent a lot of money over the past four or five years – close to $80,000 retrofitting our lab. We have put in a lot of diagnostic equipment, some sophisticated soldering systems.”

In other words, the workshop is the best place to do the repairs because that is where all the equipment is.

Clients send Data Factory their defective devices along with any user manuals, photographs and documentation that may help with the diagnosis and repair.

Given Australia’s first world postal and courier networks, the lab will receive these items from anywhere across the country within two or three days.

And within 48 hours Data Factory can assess the devices and offer the answers that their owners need – “Is it repairable? If so, how much will it cost? If it’s not repairable, can it be retrofitted with something available off the shelf? And again, how much will it cost?”

Kowalewski explained that another critical part of the process is testing.

“If you know that the thing has been working for five or 10 or 20 hours here it’s very likely that it will work on site. Otherwise there’s a problem on site unrelated to the drive,” he said.

Apart from the Australian market, data factory has on occasion undertaken projects from as far afield as China, Indonesia and Vietnam.

In addition, the company has a lot of suppliers from Asia.

Kowalewski emphasised that a good supply is an important part of the business – “Electronic parts are not commonly used in Australia so we have supply chains in the states, the UK, Singapore and Hong Kong, where we can virtually deliver it in 48 hrs.”

“We have a window of two weeks to evaluate, bring the parts in, repair and test. Otherwise customer goes to a plan B.”

Textile giant Bekaert Australia is one company that has employed the services of Data Factory. The company sees this as a way to keep repair costs at its 16 acre Dandenong site to a minimum.

Production Manager, Cedric Deleu related an example – “We had a dying machine go down. The drive had failed and it contained a lot of information needed to run specific pumps etc.

“We could have bought a new drive but the original machine’s manufacturer had gone out of business and we would have had to redesign the whole system.

“It would have taken weeks or even months, starting from scratch at a cost of more than $25,000 not to mention the cost of lost production.

“We sent the drive to Data Factory and a week later it was back in operation. Darius had also been able to retrieve all of the data so we were extremely lucky.”

Originally from Poland, Kowal­ewski has spent most of his life in Melbourne. As he put it – “When I came to Melbourne dinosaurs were grazing where the MCG now is.”

“I’ve been [running this business] for thirty years and we’ve kept a very low profile. But now with the fragmentation of the market and the way things are going we need to up our profile a bit…”

Data Factory doesn’t only serve manufacturers. It also works on elevators and escalators, as well as electric trams and trains. And there are also customers which Kowalewski likes to call hobbyists – small businesses, such as guitar makers which wouldn’t really call themselves manufacturers but still have CNC machining.

“They buy it on e-bay or second hand and when it packs up they are really helpless,” hes said.

And, chances are, they call Data Factory to fix it.