Warehouse automation services, also commonly referred to as after-sales services or lifecycle services, generate revenues from automation projects following their commissioning. Like any complex digitally controlled electro-mechanical system, automation equipment requires regular attention and maintenance to ensure its smooth continued operation. Services are, in combination with product quality, a way to maintain and enhance its standing and value in the marketplace. Moreover, profit margins on service often tend to be higher than those derived from the sale of the hardware.
Interact Analysis’ market report found that $4.3 billion in revenue was generated from after-sales services by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and integrators in 2020. This includes remote services, on-site services, spare parts, and modernizations/upgrades. Accounting for customers that perform service in-house or outsourced to third parties, nearly $5 billion in additional servicing potential exists within the industry, suggesting ample prospects for growth.
COVID-19 affirms the significance of services
Whereas business from warehouse automation projects tends to have a degree of volatility from year to year, the service business has demonstrated a steadier pattern of growth. While automation warehouse order intake was up, a slight revenue contraction stung the hardware market in 2020 as large capital expenditures were put on hold with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In contrast, the service business remained buoyant as much of the revenue stream is recurring in nature and system-critical maintenance continued to be performed.
As the installed base of automation projects increases, so too will the service opportunity. Moreover, the complexity of systems, increased cost of downtime, and dynamic customer requirements make regular service and upgrades more critical. We forecast that the global service market will average low double-digit growth through the next five years and reach $8.7 billion by 2025.
Business models are evolving to meet customer demand
So critical is the provision of ongoing troubleshooting, repair services, and spare parts, that virtually all OEMs/and integrators offer some form of lifecycle service. The development of that service capability beyond the basics depends on the maturity of a vendor’s installed base as well as a significant investment in manpower, training, and organization. Each step in the evolution provides additional revenue opportunity commensurate with elevated financial risks and human resource challenges.
- A la carte services – make available a variety of service options which customers pick and choose either on a contract or ad hoc basis. Vendors may provide price incentives through service bundles or contract offers. There may be some flexibility regarding geographic proximity if air travel to customer sites is a convenient possibility.
- Full service – provides the same basic services as an a la carte offers, but with the major distinction of guaranteeing service response time and/or system uptime. In doing so, the service provider assumes a level of risk: penalties may be incurred if there are delays in service provision, causing unnecessary down time. Geographic proximity to the customer site becomes more important in meeting these agreements.
- Resident maintenance and operations – In providing full time staffing to maintain and/or operate the automation equipment, the service provider must have direct presence at the customer location and assume all the challenges of recruiting, hiring, training, and ensuring a constant presence at the customer location, in some cases with an onsite HR representative.
- Warehouse operations – This is the logical extension from resident operation, though currently only reserved for customers of the largest projects. Full warehouse operations (in essence providing some of the services of a 3PL) are being offered on a limited basis by micro fulfillment providers like Fabric.
- Hardware-as-a-service – This is a model that has some popularity in the autonomous mobile robot (AMR) industry to lessen the barrier of adoption of this relatively new technology. However, there is still a strong desire on the part of customers to own large capital assets, and a resistance by vendors to “become the bank” for customers. Nevertheless, automation providers are now considering how a “pay-per-use” combining the equipment sales, service, and operation, might be received. There are likely to be trials of this model in the next 1 to 3 years as the customer base seeks to offload risk in the face of uncertain future demand. Should this become a reality, the lines would forever blur between new business and aftersales service.
The overall outlook for warehouse automation services is positive. A growing installed base presents additional opportunity for integrators to attach service. At the same time, the increasing size and complexity of projects will favor the specialized expertise of the incumbent installers. We can expect to see core maintenance and repair service offers augmented with more operational capabilities in the future to address changing customer requirements and bolster recurring revenues further.
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