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A dealer’s perspective on robot repairs

Abbie Rose for Progressive Dairy Published on 15 September 2021

The July 19, 2021, issue of Progressive Dairycontained an article titled “Robot repairs: The solution or the problem?” The author, Ian Gallacher, brought up many good points from a producer’s perspective.

I am writing this from the other side of the coin: the dealer perspective. We all agree robots have a place in the dairy industry; however, we also recognize where we can all improve. Gallacher pointed to the cost of repairs, experience and availability of service technicians, and distribution of knowledge to the farm level.

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Between loss of production, disruption of cow behavior and expensive service visits, the cost of a robot being down is high. As a dealer, we see a significant difference in yearly robot costs between farms that know how to fix robots and those that aren’t as comfortable doing so. Personally, I don’t believe robotic farms can be fully optimized and profitable in either scenario – without utilizing any service technicians or while relying on service technicians to fix every nut and bolt.

Just as farm owners have trouble finding labor on the farm, we also have trouble finding individuals willing to work as service technicians and to be on-call for wages that aren’t competitive compared to other industries. We put a lot of energy into creating a good place to work so we can retain employees and create service technicians who have years of experience.

Robotic farmers want to have the most knowledgeable service technicians on their farm when the robot is down. However, we can’t create well-rounded technicians without having farms to service. So where is the balance?

I don’t think the solution is 100% farmer training and completely erasing the role of a service technician. The best trained farmer cannot gain the experience of someone who battles robotic issues across multiple farms every day like service technicians do. The infrastructure behind these technicians gives them an advantage. Farmers simply can’t do it all. Even if there were better processes that could “facilitate intake, standardization, distribution and utilization of the steps needed to fix problems that arise with robots,” that would require immense time on behalf of the farmer to keep up with that amount of information and the never-ending developments, as our service techs do. If dairy producers were trained to fix their robots extensively, in theory they wouldn’t need service technicians anymore. When farmers don’t need service technicians, dealers can’t afford to pay service technicians. What will happen when the robot inevitably goes down at 2 a.m. and the farmer can’t figure it out?

The question becomes: How do we make this a “win” for all? How can we keep the cost low to the robotic farmers while generating the cash flow to the dealer to afford to keep the service technician so that when the farmer does inescapably need them, the service techs can be there to get them back up and running?

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The idea of training farmers is excellent. In fact, we have had many farmer trainings in the past at our dealership. We want our customers to be able to solve the basics by themselves. As I mentioned before, we see the difference in annual maintenance cost for farms that can handle the little things. If our customers are not profitable, we’re not any better off.

Experienced robot technicians can also make farms more profitable. Just this week, we were performing scheduled maintenance at a farm. The farmer wasn’t having any issues; everything was going fine. With a million things on their plate, the average farmer doesn’t always dig into the robot looking for problems. While we were there, we found a massive buildup of cheese in the pre-milk device because a valve had gone down but didn’t cause any major signs of concern for normal robot operation. This finding not only prevented an emergency call but also the potential loss of quality premiums down the road.

One solution is to have service technicians do regularly scheduled maintenance and empower the farmer to handle unexpected breakdowns. However, from our experience, robotic maintenance is one of the first things to drop when cash flow gets tight on the farm. When maintenances drop, we also see a direct rise in emergency calls. Our dealership is actively exploring service agreements for our robot users. We feel we can help farms cash flow better by having a monthly budgeted amount to pay instead of a high bill when a service call does happen.

I also think it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge that robotic milking solutions are less than 30 years old. Robots aren’t going anywhere, so it’s up to everyone involved in the industry to make sure they continue to be a profitable solution. I know the various brands of robot manufacturers are striving for more uptime and simpler ways to troubleshoot robot issues. Indeed, the future is bright for robotic milking technology and those who use it. Even so, we must ensure the farms of today have a positive and profitable experience. We typically loaded a user’s manual on our new customers’ computers. Since reading Gallacher’s article, we have implemented a change to not only put it on a computer but also offer a printed version so customers can use what they are most comfortable with. I hope other dealers will follow suit.

We need to strike a balance between understanding the value of service technicians and having farms that know how to fix the robots themselves while continuing to strive for a low cost of maintenance. As dealers, we often get accused of not understanding the farmer’s perspective. While we can never fully understand shoes we don’t walk in, I think the industry would be better off if we all took a moment to see one another’s perspective. end mark

Abbie Rose
  • Abbie Rose

  • Operations Manager
  • Lely Center Mid-Atlantic, a division of Fisher & Thompson Inc.
  • Email Abbie Rose

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