The last several decades have seen a change in the U.S. valve industry landscape from the mainland of “do-it-all-ourselves” companies to independent islands of commerce focusing just on what they do best—design and manufacture. The do-it-all philosophy used to include warranty, service, modification, repair and R&D work. The realities of today’s valve manufacturing economy, however, make subcontracting some of this work a necessity.
Probably the biggest area of OEM support lies in the service function. As valve manufacturing facilities grow larger and some facilities get further away from installation points, the importance of quality service providers becomes paramount. While some manufacturers still perform their own service work, these numbers are a fraction of what they were in the 1950s and 1960s.
Those that still perform their own service work are typically one of three types: 1) smaller manufacturers that have the flexibility to break into new valve production setups and schedule repair work, 2) manufacturers that fear compromising their intellectual design property or 3) manufacturers whose products are technically very complex and difficult to repair.
AUTHORIZED SERVICE CENTERS
The most popular method of OEM support service is the authorized service center (ASC) approach. In this scenario, a manufacturer sees a need to authorize a company to support its brand by providing repair, warranty or modification services, usually in places geographically distant from the OEM.
The ASC approach started to become popular in the early 1960s with pressure relief valve (PRV) repair facilities approved by PRV OEMs. The PRV sector had an added quality assurance advantage in that the independent PRV repair facilities also had to be authorized by the National Board of Pressure Vessel Inspectors. This reality better ensured that the potential service centers knew what they were doing because they had to prove it to the National Board to obtain their repair stamp.
Control valve manufacturers were the second industry segment to embrace the ASC approach. However, their engineered products and related control systems dictated that the OEM had to thoroughly train any ASC personnel. This created some long-seated relationships that still exist decades later.
The manual valve (gate, globe, check and ball) OEMs did not begin to embrace the ASC concept until the import rush of the late 1980s. The overseas companies, with their manufacturing floors thousands of miles away, needed boots on the ground in the U.S. so they could earn acceptance from the end-user community. The ASC approach proved so successful that many domestic manufacturers soon adopted that model as their service personnel retired or their service departments were eliminated.
To ferret out potential service providers, OEMs usually ask the locals, either distributors or end users, to recommend candidates for consideration as an ASC. After initial calls are made, the OEM’s quality and/or engineering departments conduct a follow-up audit. Following a successful audit, the service company will usually need to provide proof of product liability insurance, and in some cases, corporate financial statements. Oftentimes, an official legal agreement is drawn up that includes a non-disclosure clause pertaining to the OEM’s intellectual property.
START-UP ASSISTANCE/WARRANTY REPAIR
Frequently, initial plant startups require that a factory representative be on hand to tweak the newly installed valves and ensure that they are operating as specified. Since most OEMs don’t employ many experienced field hands, the help of an ASC or a subcontracted, non-ASC valve repair firm can be helpful.
Motor-operated valves (MOVs) and pressure seal valves are particularly needy when it comes to requiring startup assistance. Actuators may need to be adjusted to make them perform correctly in the actual field flow conditions, while pressure seal bonnets will almost always need tightening as the line pressure is brought up to working levels. Having experienced OEM representatives (either employed by the manufacturer or from an ASC) onsite during these operations is important to the valve manufacturer and reassuring to plant personnel.
Another situation where timely OEM support is critical is in the area of warranty claims. All OEMs have someone who can respond to these situations, but quite often that person wears multiple hats and may not be available for every field inspection warranty job. A trusted ASC is often employed. When performing warranty assessment for an OEM, it is very important for the service company to be tight-lipped while onsite and to always remember they are working for the OEM. This political astuteness is one of the attributes of a good ASC service technician when assessing potential warranty issues.
Since many U.S. valve manufacturers have outsourced some or all their machining and fabrication work, opportunities exist for third-party companies to perform subcontracting work for valve OEMs. This work can range from production-line CNC component machining to welding fabrication and assembly work.
Logistics can be a deciding factor in whether an OEM needs to outsource work to a third-party valve service company. If an ASC is close to the ultimate point of installation for unique or very large valves, for example, then the OEM might enlist that ASC to perform final assembly, testing and inspection on their valves.
Many times, an end user will have testing requirements that call for their representative to witness the actual pressure testing on a batch of valves. Sometimes this is easier and cheaper (for the end-user representative) if performed in an ASC, rather than serving as a witness at a faraway factory that requires heady travel expenses. The scheduling can be much more flexible as well, since the witnessing inspector is only traveling across town or across the country and not across the globe.
With today’s economically lean valve manufacturing climate, some manufacturers have dispensed with their R&D departments. Valve service companies are now often enlisted to perform specific R&D testing protocols, since the OEM in some cases has no more R&D capability then finite element analysis and other computer simulations. These tests can range from cryogenic testing to actual service simulations at various operating temperatures and pressures. Some testing requests are as simple as random hydrostatic testing of stock on hand, just to confirm the efficacy of OEM testing procedures and confirm product repeatability.
These examples are some of the ways in which a valve service company can be an active partner with the OEM community. Today, many successful valve OEMs that use support services can echo those famous Lennon-McCartney lyrics: “I get by with a little help from my friends.”