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Is there an afterlife for robots?

Northern Industrial

Popular culture is rife with the question of robotic “mortality”. From Will Smith’s bot-hating cop in I, Robot to Robin Williams’ “upgrade” fearing sidekick in kids’ flick Robots to Rutger Hauer’s existentially-angsty android in Blade Runner, the question of what happens when robots meet the end of their natural life has been popcorn fodder for science fiction for decades.

But what about the real world?  What really does happen to robots, when they become surplus to requirements?

“The truth is,” says David Lenehan (pictured above) of Northern Industrial, “there is a whole industry based on the answer.  And it’s an industry driven by one thing: fear.”

Fear of extended downtime is understandably very, very real in the world of manufacturing.  A recent global study showed the majority of companies have experienced at least one unplanned downtime outage over the past three years, costing an average $260,000 an hour across all businesses.

The Vanson Bourne global study, sponsored by ServiceMax, from GE Digital, surveyed 450 field service and IT decision makers in the UK, US, France and Germany across the manufacturing, medical, oil and gas, energy and utilities, telecoms, distribution, logistics and transport sectors.

As well as estimating downtime losses to average $2million per year for 82% of businesses, it also concluded that around 70% of companies lack full awareness of when their equipment is due for maintenance, upgrade or replacement.

“Downtime can usually be faced down with a cool head when your robots are all shiny and new, with a robust maintenance plan in place,” says Lenehan, “The danger for manufacturers is when your robots are getting old or are in fact – whisper it – obsolete.

“All machinery is set to become obsolete at some point.  It’s the nature of the physical world that things wear out.  Add increased complexity and integration into the mix and the process of obsolescence is set only to speed up with the advance of Industry 4.0 and IIoT.

“What happens to old robots is that they get bought by people who couldn’t afford them when they were brand new.  And when those wear out?   Well, companies like us have bought-up old units and kept them in stock for just that occasion, in the form of a stockpile of carefully catalogued spare parts.

“So not so much an afterlife, but an aftermarket.  And it’s a big market.  Our website currently has around 4.2 million pages.  We export same day or next day worldwide and hold £7 million in stock sourced from over 1,350 manufacturers and covering over 200,000 part numbers.

“So our message to anyone wondering what to do with their old robots is simple: we’re buying.”

If you’re not yet ready to upgrade though, you can mitigate the risks by ensuring you have an obsolescence strategy.

“A good obsolescence strategy will ensure you get the maximum value from previous or new capital investments in terms of ongoing performance, performance improvement and energy efficiency.”

Lenehan recommends an obsolescence strategy can be divided into six parts.


“Step one is to understand that parts and spares prices have a lifecycle.  They start at a fair price, then as machinery starts to reach obsolescence, they rise dramatically as parts become hard to find but then later drop even more dramatically as original equipment starts to be replaced.

“Small and medium businesses who cannot easily afford to overhaul capital equipment can, however, make use of falling prices and avoid disruption and downtime if legacy equipment is well maintained.  The internet has opened up the spares market so companies can have a spares strategy that does not necessarily rely on the OEM.

“Having an obsolescence strategy at the outset can help companies avoid buying spare parts at peak prices and avoid the costs of disruption from stress purchasing – e.g. when equipment has already broken down.”

Risk Analysis

“Carrying out an Obsolescence Report and a Risk Analysis is a good first step toward developing a full strategy.

“Risk planning is best carried out on a rolling timeline using an inclusive framework taking into account any factors that can contribute to the likelihood and potential impact of obsolescence.

“A usual starting point is simply to identify critical assets and then assess the risk of obsolescence in both qualitative and quantitative terms.  Once the risks have been identified in relation to each asset, the next step is an assessment of obsolescence likelihood.  Data for this can be gathered from everything from the maintenance logs and internal systems to the reliability of the supplier in terms of SLAs, service and support.  By looking into suppliers’ end-of-line (EOL) plans, manufacturers can mitigate the risk of discontinued support or technology upgrades.”


Once you are aware of the risks, a strategy can be developed to minimise the overall obsolescence risk, divided into three parts: Repairs, Upgrade and Spare Parts.


“Make an assessment of what can be repaired in the event of a breakdown.  Can you wait for a repair?  For items that cannot have any downtime whatsoever, a repair may not be an option as this is going to take a minimum of 24-48 hours, and that’s if the repair supplier has the components in stock needed to complete it.  For items such as HMIs, where very specific overlays are required to complete the repair, lead times can push timescales into weeks rather than days, so repair for every item is not always an option.

“Who will carry out the repairs?  What resources do they have?  Do they have a good track record?  Is the company you’re looking at hiring actually going to do the work, or outsourcing it?  A quick company check will help narrow down the list of suppliers.  Check on Google maps if their office is capable of doing repairs and/or check LinkedIn to see if they actually have the staff required.”


“Upgrading in the middle of unplanned downtime is never recommended so it is worth considering if the equipment can be upgraded.

“What equipment can be upgraded?  What equipment should be upgraded?  When should it be upgraded?  Simply having a plan answering these questions will help keep you ahead of the curve.

“Due to their rarity, the cost of some obsolete parts can actually be more than double the cost of a modern equivalent.  New equipment comes with warranty and is more readily available so you can be confident that you will receive ongoing support for a number of years.

“Aside from these benefits, you can also get other benefits such as increased machine productivity, throughput and reliability. Upgrading can help reduce energy costs and therefore save more money. You should always consider these benefits as they can make the payback period on improvements seem really quick.

“AC drives are often a prime candidate for upgrading as the majority of applications are relatively straightforward and require only minor wiring modifications. For more complex applications there can be a reluctance to upgrade in a breakdown situation.  It is often easier to go like for like but this isn’t always the best option.  A good supplier should have the necessary skills to assist or even set up the replacement before shipping.  Planning the upgrade in advance is always the best solution.”

Spare Parts

“What spare parts will be needed?  Do we have them in stock?  Keeping a good stock of the right spare parts can help mitigate the risk of breakdown disasters and expensive downtime.

“For items where you have ascertained that repair or upgrade is not an option, but the part is critical to your production, a spare should be kept in your stock so that in the event of a breakdown you can switch out the faulty unit in a matter of minutes.  This mitigates downtime and gives you the option to repair the faulty unit and put it back into your stores, reducing future costs on spares management.

“Buying spares at the right time can save you a lot of money compared to purchasing when you are already on breakdown and are factoring in express shipments from wherever the part is in the world, as well as the unit itself possibly being a lot more expensive due to its rarity now that it is obsolete.”

David Lenehan is managing director of Northern Industrial, a  family owned and run business established 1978, providing new, reconditioned and obsolete parts and repair services to customers in 132 countries worldwide.  The company currently sources from over 1,350 manufacturers, covers over 200,000 part numbers, and holds approximately £7m in stock. 

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