What do you do if your PLC is malfunctioning or needs a software modification but is no longer supported by the manufacturer? SupportPoints’ Peter Goeijenbier has the solution: a global online ecosystem of PLC-experts. It turns out to be a high potential start-up. ‘‘Knowledge is a commodity, a product that can be acquired.’’
Who remembers the Simatic S5?
Although the first system manufactured by Siemens (Simatic stands for Siemens and Automatic) saw the light of day in 1979, it’s likely that ‘the S5’ rings a bell. This PLC (Programmable Logic Controller, a device in the industry that controls a machine) is still is built-in to many machines and runs stable. But what if this Simatic S5 requires an update? Who still has the knowledge and experience to maintain this outdated yet robust interface?
SupportPoints is a platform with an international network of over 1.800 experts in the PLC space. The platform offers online support for PLC-problems around the world in order to keep manufacturing processes alive. ‘’Whether it’s about outages or software modifications, outdated or more recent systems, we offer fast and efficient support. Every moment, every day.’’ These are the words coming from Peter Goeijenbier, founder and owner of SupportPoints, who knows the tricks of the trade. A few of his past working experiences include measure- and control technician, head of Technical department at a power plant, a hospital, and maintenance and reliability consultant. He worked at DSM, Dunea, ‘in the heavy steal’, at biomass plants and in the offshore oil & gas. In the past twelve years, he worked as a consultant. ‘’I have seen the industry from different perspectives. I have experienced it: four hours of struggling with a problem and starting all over again after four hours of hard work.’’
Goeijenbier and his team solve different types of problems. ‘’First of all, there is a worldwide shortage in specialized technical PLC-knowledge. That shortage exists already for years in the labor market, but especially in a specific area like PLC’s, it becomes problematic. Knowledge about logical controllers is only needed on rare occasions. In addition, most PLC’s have a long lifetime whilst the world around it changes fast. This makes it hard to hold on to the knowledge. Especially because training programs have ceased to exist.’’
Is it – especially in times of industry 4.0 – not wiser to simply replace an old PLC? ‘’That can be a solution, but the consequences can be bigger than expected’’ says Goeijenbier. ‘’First of all, everything stops instantly when a PLC is replaced. It means a conversion from old to new, so all coding needs to be rewritten. In addition, all the newly installed software needs to be commissioned afterward; for quality control and performance assurance of installations. Let’s say you have a company in the pharmaceutical industry. Those are measured against FDA- and EMA- standards. Believe me, pharmaceutical companies would rather continue with their old system.’’
Goeijenbier insists to clarify that a PLC is not a pc. A PLC contains industrial electronics, sometimes according to the strict American military MIL-standards. These quality components easily have a lifetime of > twenty years. ‘’Then you reach a point when there are no parts or services available for anymore for your PLC. Take Siemens for example, who since 2016 no longer supports de Simatic S5. What do you do if your installation can run for another ten years, but the PLC requires an update? In that case, Supportpoints can provide the much-needed knowledge so that you can continue to work with your machine.’’
Supportpoints built up a network of 3.500 experts. This network helps companies to get their machines up and running again, by combining experts’ insights from across the world. Supporting both defected PLC’s as well as PLC-software modifications, SupportPoints is set up as an online marketplace. Their people are programmers from all over the world. These are individuals with many years of experience in engineering, but also specialized companies. Because of the variety of time zones around the world covered, SupportPoints is always ‘open’. Customers and experts also have the ability to rate each other, similar to for example Airbnb. The SupportPoints platform is also available for lease as a white-label platform for business that is not supported by SupportPoints. This platform is called MySupportSuite (www.mysupportsuite.com).
‘’Our people were raised with PLC’s. They know old techniques and programming language inside out. That’s how you recognize someone who works internally in the Technical department. An internal technician knows the end-to-end process of his plant very well. But our people constantly have different PLC related assignments. They are recruited to solve a problem and to be challenged.’’
That’s why he believes the technical world is going to change. ‘’ We are not going to fill the gap of technicians. For as long as I live, there are not enough technicians. We need to find a different solution. I think that we need to educate a large group of technical people who can do the generic technical work. They are the general employees of the Technical Service who run the day to day business. But if there is something specific, companies can acquire dedicated supporting knowledge. Knowledge is a commodity, an article that you can acquire; for example PLC-experts on a reliable platform of SupportPoints. PLC-knowledge as a service.’’
The network of SupportPoints has not remained unnoticed. Before the Coronacrisis outbreak, the tech-company founded in Leiden was on the radar of Techleap. Techleap provides Dutch scaleups of tools and knowledge to recruit and maintain talent so that these young organizations can grow and scale-up across the borders. In the action plan for 2023, Techleap announced the goal for the coming three years to make the Netherlands one of the best startup and scaleup ecosystems globally. Techleap aims to realize fifteen percent more success for Dutch scaleups internationally, to free up to ten billion euros extra in venture capital for tech scale-ups, and to create twice as many startups and scaleups in deep tech. The organization will also reduce the number of open software developer vacancies by twenty-five percent. This is the last pillar of the ‘tech talent’.