A double-edged sword
Without doubt, there is gold — and perhaps silver and platinum, too, depending on the components — to be mined from repairing and maintaining today’s new breed of wireless field equipment. But it may require too much effort for the average dealer to try to dig it out.
New ruggedized computer-centric radios, PDAs and laptops still will break and need repair, but the days of taking back a device, soldering the errant pieces together on a workbench and returning it to the field are over.
“I don’t think many average repair shops are going to have the know-how, the equipment or the supporting documentation to return such equipment to service properly,” said Bob Samo, CEO of Silverado Avionics, a 40-year-old Napa, Calif., dealership.
There are multiple problems with the upkeep of new IP-based equipment, he said. For starters, the devices are more complex than traditional radio frequency (RF) radios. Also, their ruggedness is seen as a “hands off” sign by many shops. “If anything occurred that involved the mechanics of the ruggedized part of the equipment, I’d be inclined to send it back to the manufacturer,” Samo said.
However, not all ruggedized equipment is perceived as an immediate stop sign for dealer repairs, said Steve Guller, vice president of Warner Communications, a St. Louis dealership that also has been operating for more than four decades. Guller’s team has worked with ruggedized radios, he said, and “for the most part, it doesn’t really affect us a whole lot except where a product is moisture-sealed. Moisture seals and things like that require additional care and time to make sure that the gasket is intact.”
Samo, on the other hand, doesn’t believe that working with moisture seals is worth the effort. “Once you open up that radio … if the gasketing isn’t replaced and the proper type of grease isn’t used in the sealing process, when that radio’s put back together, it’s probably no longer going to meet the manufacturer’s specifications for being submersible,” he said.
Sal Dragotta, general manager of Milwaukee-based Viking Communications, agreed: “If they get wet, then all bets are off because it’s almost impossible to get all the moisture out of a piece of electronic equipment.”
Guller also has his limits on which equipment he will touch. PDAs and laptops are tough to sell, tough to maintain and tough to repair, which creates some problems for a company that prides itself on doing the job right, he said. Specifically, repair shops that are not familiar with RF often are willing to take shortcuts that Warner isn’t — and they often get away with it. “The majority of the time it works, and it’s OK,” he said.
But just OK isn’t good enough for Warner. “We deal with a lot of public safety, [and to have] something glitch up with a customer’s life at stake, we can’t do that,” he said. “We’ve taught our people to be thorough and look deep and not only see if it will work most of the time, but [also] what could go wrong and make sure it doesn’t go wrong. When it comes to wireless cards in PDAs and computers … for the majority of them, we don’t get deeply involved because we’re not going to be the cheapest,” Guller said.
While not everything is moisture-proofed, it is likely that a new piece of field equipment with advanced computer electronics will have a ruggedized shell. That’s “not the kind of thing that you can crack the box open in the field; you want to do it in more of a controlled environment,” said Bob Morrow, regional sales manager for Itronix, a General Dynamics company that sells primarily to value-added resellers and handles most of its own repairs.
Itronix maintains a training program for dealers, but finds it easier to deal with most repairs internally because “a lot of the components are plug-and-play, [so] when it is returned for service we’re just talking about a replacement-type item,” Morrow said.
In theory, a dealer-based repair shop could pop the box, replace the component and reseal the device, but the cost of inventory is a deterrent, as is the cost of manpower required to do bench-level repairs, said Bill Scapin, director of North American service operations for Motorola. “Many can’t afford those kinds of head counts within their facilities,” he said.
Scapin prefers Motorola’s method, which is to have products shipped to a centralized depot for repairs.
“You’re actually talking about modular swaps with the units so that repair times can become faster. What you’re seeing in a repair is a swap, not necessarily a true physical repair,” Scapin said.
Myron Polulak, president of New England Communications Systems — which got its start in 1995 when it purchased two service centers from Motorola — said his dealership uses depots and that there’s even a little money to be found in handling fees.
“We’re a servicing dealer … but we still have significant contracts with various manufacturers where we’ll take the device and ship it to the depot. They have the technical expertise to rip out a board, put in a new board, reboot it and out it goes.”
Many of the ruggedized devices are rated as intrinsically safe (IS), which presents additional challenges for dealer-based repair shops.
According to Viking’s Dragotta, the growing presence of IS-certified devices is adding more difficulty to an already touchy business. “Business is changing rapidly and these … intrinsically safe radios are not helping the situation,” he said.
Not only are they often difficult to repair — requiring them to be sent back to the manufacturer — but dealers also must be certified in order to do the work. “If you want to be an intrinsically-safe-rated shop, that’s pretty expensive, and it’s a yearly inspection,” Dragotta said.
Even without the influx of ruggedized and IS-rated devices, the consensus seems to be that the repair business is changing rapidly for dealers. According to Dragotta, some of his traditional customers are going away. For instance, more hospitals are opting for IP-based and non-ruggedized devices that “you can go down to CompUSA and buy. The equipment is so inexpensive it’s typically throwaway,” he said.
In addition, the way people wirelessly access the Internet is changing the equipment they use. Consequently, dealers who want to continue to make some money from maintaining and handling field equipment must understand how equipment is changing and what’s needed to maintain it, Warner’s Guller said, noting that it’s worth the effort.
“Repair is a profit center for us,” he said. “[But] instead of replacing the components, we’re replacing the board.”
Although repairs should continue to be a moneymaker, the method of performing those repairs will change.
“It’s becoming more software-driven, and we’re pushing our techs to become more software-fluent,” Guller said. “In the past four or five years we’ve had more problems … that are related directly to the firmware.”
Motorola’s Scapin agreed. “When you think about it, a mobile radio anymore is a hand-held computer; everything’s software-driven. It’s not tube and resistors; it’s a computer that sits in your hand.”