IBM service follows products after delivery

IBM Corp. has launched a service aimed at helping manufacturing companies track unit-level information, potentially reducing product warranty costs and driving additional spare parts sales.

The service, called IBM ServiceAfterSales, is offered by IBM's Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) group. It was designed to improve a company's ability to track the performance and usage history of a product after it has been shipped to a customer.

Using the centralized service, companies will be able to keep tabs on key product-diagnostics information, usage and repair histories, maintenance and service records, and detailed case-based repair scenarios.

French automaker PSA Peugeot Citro├źn SA, for instance, is using the service to perform Internet-based remote diagnostics on its cars, said Alan A. Chakra, IBM's business unit executive in charge of the new service.

Using onboard diagnostics and Internet links at dealer locations, a Peugeot vehicle can report fault conditions to a remote service facility maintained by IBM, which then advises technicians on the corrective steps that need to be taken, Chakra said.

Another example is a recent wireless remote monitoring and control service called that's being offered by Farmington, Conn.-based air conditioner maker Carrier Corp. and IBM. Among other things, the service allows Carrier's new Web-enabled air conditioners to send fault codes and other diagnostic alerts instantaneously via mobile phones, e-mail or fax to the company's service technicians, Chakra claimed.

This kind of unit-level interaction helps companies reduce repair times and avoid the common mistake of unnecessarily replacing good parts, analysts said.

It also allows companies to gather information that can be used to anticipate and design around future problems, said Andy Chatha, president of ARC Advisory Group Inc., a Dedham, Mass.-based manufacturing consultancy.

These kinds of capabilities are crucial for manufacturers that are looking to aftermarket service, maintenance and repair for opportunities to cut costs and grow revenues, especially in a slow economy, Chatha said.

Despite the potential upfront costs, "there's a lot of pressure on manufacturing companies to develop systems like these" because of their long-term return on investment, he added.

Putting together the pieces needed to deliver such services isn't trivial, said Ken Amann, an analyst at CIMdata Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich.

IBM is working with other companies to integrate the components of an organization's product life cycle management system, such as product services, customer support, configuration and diagnostics services, as well as aftermarket service support and management teams.

"The good news is that all the pieces are there already," Amann said. And advances in areas such as wireless and broadband technologies are making deployment easier, he added. The key lies in integrating these different parts and figuring out how to optimally gather, store, access, share and mine the information that's generated from such a system, he explained.