Technologies Of The Year -- Critical Reach Software Suite

Technology incorporates 2-D and 3-D links to improve aftermarket sales and service.

Many manufacturers need to service what they make in order to retain customers, and the aftermarket sales and service side of the business has always been viewed as a necessary cost center without much room for savings. But new software technology developed by Critical Reach Inc. promises to improve aftermarket sales and service and drastically reduce costs.

For example, a large European manufacturer has a staff of service technicians who make about six service calls daily. By using Critical Reach's application, the company has reduced the total time required for 30% of its service calls by an average of 10 minutes. This resulted in a time savings of more than 200 hours per day, or $1.85 million.

Critical Reach is a subsidiary of Critical Reach SA, (formerly JANET GmbH), Munich, Germany, a privately held company founded in 1996 by a group of four scientists who worked together at a German university. Through development projects with large German manufacturers of complex products, JANET created some of the first e-business aftermarket service chain applications using JAVA and XML.

"In the first two years we mainly did projects in e-business solutions in the manufacturing industry," says company co-founder Georg Hess. "Then we found that there was a huge opportunity to change our business from a project business to a product software company to serve the aftermarket industry."

Critical Reach has attracted major clients such as Siemens AG, BMW, Agfa GmbH, Deutsch Telekom AG, Miele & Cie GmbH & Co., and Technolas GmbH, a Bausch & Lomb Surgical Co. Critical Reach opened its U.S. office in Westminster, Colo., in September.

The Critical Reach Service Suite gives service and maintenance technicians complete access to comprehensive information through a laptop or handheld device with a Web-browser connection. The software provides diagnosis, repair and maintenance information, including complete manuals, connections to enterprise resource planning systems, procurement data, as well as spare parts ordering information, supplier pricing and procurement rules, up-to-the-minute configuration changes, product enhancement information and maintenance notices.

Requiring no plug-ins or downloads, the Critical Reach application also has the ability to import CAD, SGML or XML documents from existing formats without any rework. With all of the processing done on a corporate server, Critical Reach uses standard banking transaction protocol to ensure secure transactions, even if the Internet connection breaks.

But what makes Critical Reach's software unique, according to the company and its customers, is its interactive, point-and-click 2-D and 3-D drilldown technology that can facilitate faster diagnosis and repair. This can help technicians improve productivity, reduce service costs and maintain customer satisfaction.

The drilldown feature provides a point-and-click exploration, allowing a technician to open any 2-D or 3-D CAD drawing of a product's external and internal components or parts structures, which are interlinked to graphics, texts and animations. While the technician has a 2-D or 3-D view of the component, module or part that needs to be repaired or replaced, the technician also can call up on the screen all related information including parts' lists, repair instructions and manuals. A technician also can zoom in and manipulate a 3-D view of a module or component and see its individual parts. An animation feature allows a technician to see how parts are assembled or disassembled. Additionally, every part and component is linked to a list that displays its name and order number. And through simple point and click, a technician can call up a replacement order form that automatically contains the linked part numbers, pricing information and inventory status.

Technolas GmbH, Munich, Germany, manufactures complex laser tools for refractive eye surgery. The Bausch & Lomb Technolas 217A excimer laser is used at nearly 400 health-care facilities worldwide. The company began using the Critical Reach software three years ago to improve its aftermarket sales and service, says Norbert Machlitt, managing director of operations for Technolas.

Although the laser is designed to have minimal repairs and maintenance, the company depends on hundreds of independent service technicians in cities around the world. While these technicians are required to complete a two-week training session annually, they are service generalists and acquire only the basic skills for repairing the laser system.

The German firm found that distributing spare parts information to its service technicians became inefficient and costly. During a service call, for example, a technician would find the problem and then have to pore over a large spare parts catalog. Technolas said that 20% of the time technicians filled out replacement orders incorrectly by selecting the wrong or obsolete part name or order number. The company also found that the catalog was ineffective in helping technicians, with only basic knowledge of the laser, to correctly identify the problem part.

Machlitt estimates that these errors impacted aftermarket sales and service with costs ranging in the tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sometimes the company was forced to dispatch an engineer to a site and reimburse the customer for any extended downtime. In other instances, the wrong part was installed and permanently damaged the laser.

Using Critical Reach software, Technolas established InterSPL (Internet accessible Spare Parts List) a Web-based catalog that gives technicians access to comprehensive technical information of the Technolas 217A and its nearly 400 parts.

"Even though our service technicians are trained once a year for two weeks in Munich, during the year there are always some details, changes or new developments that come up, and our technicians need to be updated," says Machlitt. "The software allows the company to make updates whenever necessary so when technicians go on a service call, they have the most recent information. When technicians have the right information on hand, it reduces the costs dramatically."

Machlitt said the Critical Reach software also has allowed its service technicians to do more repairs because of the 2-D/3-D graphic animation that illustrates how parts can be repaired or replaced. This also helped reduce the number of times engineers have needed to assist technicians in the field. Machlitt believes the company will be able to reduce its travel costs by up to two thirds.

The Critical Reach software has another benefit in that it can help companies maintain productive relationships with customers over the Internet.

"The demand for aftermarket sales business over the Web is growing and is something that the companies are starting to think about strategically as a new sales channel," says Herbert Bickelmann, managing director of the E-Media Group for Orbis GmbH, Saarbruecken, Germany, a business consulting firm. "Now companies want to develop customer relationships by offering the best service over the Internet."

Orbis, which decided last year to use the Critical Reach software for its discrete manufacturing clients, is developing a customer service portal for a German company that manufactures grinding machines in Europe and the U.S. Orbis integrated the Critical Reach software with its customer's SAP system, an enterprise resource planning software. So when a CAD file is changed in the SAP system, it is automatically updated in the Critical Reach software.

"When the customer logs in, he gets his customized equipment list for all of the machines he purchased from the grinding machine company," Bickelmann says. "If he has a problem with the machine, he goes to the 3-D model to identify parts that exactly match the equipment list of the machines that he bought. If you identify a part on the 3-D model, you can automatically order the part on the SAP online store."

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