Many uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) are built to be rugged, reliable and to withstand years of tough use. But let’s face it — even products built for punishing military and industrial environments are not going to last forever. When things go wrong, whether due to abusive conditions, human error or normal wear and tear, you’ll have a decision to make. Do you go to the potentially large expense of purchasing a new UPS, or do you seek a repair or reconditioning solution? In today’s economy, with capped or reduced budgets, the first choice may not even be an option.
This is why it’s important that, before purchasing your UPS products, you make sure that the company you’re buying from has the best support system in place. This support should take the shape of a return material authorization (RMA) department. Take note, they are not all created equal. The following is a guide to some of the characteristics and offerings you should look for.
Real RMA Departments For Real Problems
First off, make sure that your UPS provider actually has a true RMA department. This should be a team manned with trained technicians whose time is fully devoted to the assessment, repair and reconditioning of UPS units. Some companies might rely solely on product engineers, which is not only a potentially expensive approach but also stretches their talents thin and can lead to very long repair timelines.
Other companies might tout their phone support. This is fine as part of a solution, and certainly should be offered, but it doesn’t provide the proper level of safety required for power supplies if it is the only solution. For example, customers should never take the cover off of their unit to fool around “under the hood.” There’s a danger of serious injury due to high voltage, not to mention jeopardizing any existing warranty protection. Look for an RMA department with long-term employees that utilize a well-documented process. This is a team that will work with you and your time constraints. In most cases, a well-appointed and managed department should be able to guarantee that a product is returned to you within a specified time limit.
It Is, After All, About Time
You can’t afford to be without essential power. Look for a company that has the people, equipment and processes in place to deliver and provide fast turnaround.
After initiating the process with a call or email, you should expect a response and even an assigned job number within a day, or even as few as eight hours. You’ll find out at this point whether the product falls under a time-based warranty (this may later be voided upon inspection if the product is deemed physically damaged).
Once the product is received by the manufacturer’s RMA department and the damage has been assessed, the unit should enter the triage stage. This is the point when technicians perform visual external and internal examination of the product, which should normally take no more than five days. In addition to a thorough visual exam, the triage process should include benchtop process testing, voltage testing (AC or DC), and complete documentation in an RMA data system. Make sure that test data and failure analysis reports are made available upon customer request.
Also identify if testing will be done entirely in-house, which not only provides quality control but also allows for shorter timelines. In-house testing should be conducted in the triage stage and include operation in all appropriate modes supported by the unit’s configuration. Testing should include pre-burn in, burn-in and final test, while powering the units with the most extreme loads that would be experienced in the real work environment. The best RMA teams perform full acceptance testing, treating RMA units the same as a newly manufactured unit. This ensures that every system is given identical attention whether it is brand new or needs repair after being fielded.
Once the triage process is complete, you should promptly receive an evaluation of the UPS as well as an accurate quote for repair. The quote should include detailed description of all parts to be replaced or repaired. After that, your requirements and needs should be the primary influencer on the starting date for work initiation.
Once costs are approved and authorization is given to move forward to repair or to refurbish a unit, a smooth-running and efficient RMA department should be able to complete the job in about a week. If extenuating circumstances (e.g. physical damage) will prevent prompt service, the department should provide you a heads-up and a realistic schedule for completion before repair work begins.
The best RMA teams identify the cost versus benefits of fixing a unit compared to replacing it. This information will enable you to make the decision that best fits your budget and future needs.
The Power of the Kanban
There’s a science to keeping an RMA project moving along — as with any manufacturing process, this can come down to utilizing an advanced workflow system. Some RMA departments maximize organization and workflow through the use of a Kanban scheduling system. This scheduling system for lean and just-in-time (JIT) production helps manufacturers determine what to produce, when to produce it, and how much to produce in the most cost-effective manner.
Made famous by the ways it promoted improvements at Toyota, Kanban can be an exceptionally valuable tool for RMA teams. A Kanban system can tell technicians, at a glance, what and how many units are in process, and the stage of testing or repair. The RMA database system is a convenient and efficient repository for all data, providing weekly and monthly reports, complete with product photos, which can be passed on to you at any time. This readily available information not only builds satisfaction and trust, but also leads to better-quality results.
Returned and Repaired Right, the First Time
The ultimate goal of a well-managed RMA department is to send the product back to the customer in a condition that comes as close to brand new as possible. Repaired units should have at least a 90-day warranty, during which time they would be repaired at no cost. But 99 percent of the time, the first time a product is repaired should be the only time. In fact, it is wise to seek customer testimonials from those who have experience with the supplier’s RMA department before purchasing your UPS.
Unless a product has extreme damage along the lines of internal charring or severe corrosion from some sort of aquatic submersion, your RMA department should have the skills and resources to recondition any product — to rebuild it if necessary — at a substantial savings over a new unit. Additionally, RMA departments should also be able to demonstrate that they can address a range of situations.
Some reasons for returned units are not true failures. For example, a low battery is a common reason for UPS returns. Most users simply aren’t able to test fielded batteries. If no back-up battery pack is available, the system is returned for repair. The system didn’t fail any more than when a TV remote needs new batteries.
Access to the right tools and parts is critical. The RMA department should be able to quickly and easily obtain essential parts, from circuit boards and chassis to battery cells. A well-executed supply chain ensures RMA teams can support long-term fielded units, including products that have been sunset.
Available human expertise is just as vital. If the parameters of a repair job exceed the norm, the ability to call on the engineers that design the UPS products and utilize the engineering lab can be invaluable. Determine if your RMA team has a solid working relationship with the company’s engineering department. If these two departments truly collaborate you may learn that there have been times that RMA has made recommendations to the engineering group. With access to real-life outcomes of fielded systems, RMA is in the position to suggest inclusion of more robust components that offer longer product life.
Don’t Expect Miracles, but Demand the Best
Not every unit can be turned into a “like-new” UPS system. Sometimes the damage is just too great and the cost too high. UPS systems returned for repair after being run over by military vehicles or experiencing dramatic events that occur in combat fall into this category.
If you know what questions to ask and what qualities to seek, you’ll have the power to locate the best RMA option. This will greatly increase your chances of quickly turning an impaired unit into a vital, reliable and hard-working UPS within your budget. This is the kind of return on investment needed in the face of shrinking defense budgets and reduced military resources.
Jeff Boudreau is a Senior Applications Engineer at Acumentrics in Westwood, MA. The company's RUPS subsidiary is a trusted market leader in rugged AC and DC power sources for harsh and combat environments as well as heavy-duty industrial applications.