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THE BIG DEBATE: Is kitchen connectivity a maintenance blessing or curse?

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Kitchens these days are packed with more technology than ever before thanks to the proliferation of connected equipment, touchscreen-based controls and software-driven applications. But that also brings an array of pros and cons when it comes to the business of service and maintenance. FEJ rounded up a panel of top kitchen service providers to find out how that side of the industry is dealing with the challenge.

Many commercial kitchen appliances now have a far stronger IT or software element to them than they did in the past. What implications has this had for traditional kitchen services and maintenance businesses?

Peter Baulch, service director, C&C Catering Engineers: We must ensure our technicians have the relevant knowledge and understanding to embrace the changes manufacturers are making to their appliances and to ensure they understand the technology that is starting to appear within the commercial kitchen environment.

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Kane Needs, technical manager, Marren Group: In many cases the end-user is looking for the service technicians to have the ability to show them how the user would best use the screen to change or carry out tasks — gone are the days of turning dials and pressing ‘start’. Any of the main internal board changes tend to need some level of firmware for the job to be completed, which may or may not come with the item as standard, as well as the process of copying the specific user settings/menus before any task is carried out. Experience in these areas is certainly within the younger generations of service technicians — as with all devices used today you either move with the times or get left behind.

Irene Keal, marketing director, Sylvester Keal: We have an annual budget per year to invest with manufacturers to train our staff and ensure they are up to date with all the latest legislation. This includes the latest technology and software-driven applications on catering and foodservice equipment. Our service engineers and sales team have regular training so we are well-equipped to not only give our customers the best advice but to also have the knowledge and expertise to carry out service repairs and maintenance.

Derek Maher, managing director, Crystaltech: The smart kitchen is still in the early stages of development and while connectivity does appear to be attractive, it should be kept in mind that additional sensors and transmitters bring extra reliability challenges and machines have become more susceptible to breakdown of the sensors than the equipment itself. The major concern, however, relates to the security of the network and access by a disgruntled employee or engineer who could alter settings remotely. There have also been issues where our engineers have visited a customer and been unable to gain access to data due to sensitive information that can’t be shared, adding extra time to a job.

Dan Loria, director, Certa Catering Equipment: It is undoubtedly true, however in terms of the actual work required to be done on-site the effect has been minimal. If a pump goes down on a dishwasher, or a heating element fails in an oven, an engineer still has to attend site and fix the problem. Where IT and software has helped to make things easier is with regard to diagnosis. These days, more often than not, an engineer will know exactly what awaits them before they get to site, usually because the machine is displaying an error code advising what the problem is. This is particularly useful if a replacement part that is needed to fix the issue is not one that the engineer normally carries on their van — they can simply order the part in advance and have it delivered to site before they attend. This dramatically reduces downtime and increases the first-time fix rate.

Issues such as faulty touchscreens, software updates or the reprogramming of appliances are inherently IT-driven — how does your company deal with those? And has this required engineers to take on new skills?

Kane Needs: We have tried to ensure that the process from beginning to end is as streamlined as possible with easy ‘how to’ guides. Now having to carry a different USB stick for each and every job and then ensuring they are kept up to date becomes the frustration of the customer, company and engineer. Regular training to ensure engineers are using the relevant screens and technology to their advantage is certainly something that is key to repairing today’s equipment correctly and efficiently.

Irene Keal: Yes, absolutely, we have a young dedicated team of engineers that embrace technology in its entirety. They understand, so therefore can keep up with such a fast-moving IT technical environment. The fact that we build strong partnerships with our manufacturers also equips us to offer good quality advice and we can always ask them for support should we need it.

Derek Maher: Crystaltech’s nationwide team of over 60 engineers have all undergone additional training to ensure they are up to date with all the latest technologies and how to manage the new connected warewashing machines.

Dan Loria: From a development point of view, we are seeing more touchscreen machines being introduced. However, just because the technology exists to incorporate this sort of feature it doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do. For example, we have had situations where the user has chosen to operate the screen with a knife or spoon and damaged it in the process — not something that is covered by the warranty! Situations such as these are overcome with better training of the user. From the service provider’s perspective we ensure that our engineers receive ongoing training on all products manufactured by the brands that we represent.

Peter Baulch: In most cases where a part fails it needs to be replaced. On some occasions we can do repairs on the PCB if it has a dry joint. The technicians can do software updates if they have had the specific manufacturer’s training and they are provided with the ability to carry out the update, usually via a USB stick. I would like to see manufacturers have a policy of having any faulty PCB returned to them for repair as in most cases they just get thrown away.

Additional sensors and transmitters bring extra reliability challenges and machines have become more susceptible to breakdown of the sensors than the equipment itself”

Are the skill-sets of service companies changing to reflect the growth in connected appliances and kitchens? And are traditional kitchen service providers equipped to maintain the new generation of systems?

Irene Keal: We are certainly changing our skill-sets, although some service companies are reluctant to change. It is our job to discuss the benefits that are on offer to allow customers to embrace the changes and understand how they can innovate their businesses in the future, potentially saving energy and being more efficient. Change takes time, however many of our customers are on board with Sylvester Keal and that is because they are confident in our help and advice and we are able to back that up with our actions.

Dan Loria: The skill-set of engineers will continually improve as the training offered to them by the manufacturers is generally very good. However, internal service administrators are an equally important part of the service jigsaw and improving the training offered to them is something that we are constantly undertaking. So, while IT systems will always improve to deal with the next generation of kitchen technology it is important not to forget the first responders/call handlers!

Peter Baulch: We must be mindful of the growth of connected appliances and adapt skills accordingly. In some sectors the changes are being embraced very quickly while in others there is little or no move to embrace the benefits this technology can offer. The industry associations are working together to offer information courses on how connected appliances will impact our sector and how this impacts on the service technician.

Kane Needs: If used correctly, connected appliances could lead to a better first-time fix rate and help ensure the nuisance faults do not incur a wasted visit. The service companies would need to invest in an in-house process to ensure a suitably experienced technician is able to connect into the units for it to achieve its maximum potential, as a result of the connected appliance. A shift to potentially being less reactive and more proactive is a must — the key to connected appliances is to be able to repair a unit without the user knowing there is a fault.

What is the biggest challenge the kitchen service and maintenance market faces when it comes to connected kitchens?

Derek Maher: As mentioned earlier, the biggest challenge for the service and maintenance market is gaining access to data held on secure networks, and additional technology can mean more things that can go wrong.

Dan Loria: It is really important that every aspect is monitored and to have assurances that connections are in place in order for the monitoring to be accurate. Obviously this needs to happen from the service provider’s side, but kitchens are busy, hot and extreme environments where mix-ups can happen, such as routers being unplugged and networks being disabled, so there is an onus on the operator, too. So, everyone on the team, from the kitchen porters, chefs and food handlers through to the internal service team at the monitoring station, needs to have a full understanding and work as one. The technology is there but it still needs the correct human interaction to ensure it is given the chance to work.

Peter Baulch: The infrastructure still has to catch up — many appliances are starting to use WiFi to alert impending faults and failures, however due to the lack of connectivity within a structure to the internet these messages cannot be sent. Also, when a technician arrives and has the tools to connect a portable device that allows diagnostics to be run, without a good internet connection these processes cannot be completed.

The key to connected appliances is to be able to repair a unit without the user knowing there is a fault”

Kane Needs: Connected appliances are certainly becoming ‘something’ in the market but it feels at the minute like every company has a different version of what is the same concept. Having to potentially look across 10 different platforms to understand one kitchen’s performance is not something I can see the life in. If the catering industry were to all have a stake in the same concept, the level of connected appliance would, without a doubt, become more accessible. This will only ever be something for a chain rather than a single-site operation.

Irene Keal: Transition could be tricky in an environment where we are being forced to change and move forward. However, technology is the way forward and it does take the person out of the scenario. Ultimately, people deal with people, and I hope there will be more ‘multi-kitchens’ rather than fully connected.

Tags : C&C Catering EngineersCerta Catering EquipmentCrystaltechmaintenanceMarren GroupserviceSylvester Keal
Andrew Seymour

The author Andrew Seymour

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