The advantages and disadvantages of writing a CMMS from scratch

David Berger, P.Eng., contributing editor, says homegrown CMMS can be terrific, but getting one to flower may require a fertile patch of ground and lots of liquid assets.

By David Berger, P.Eng., contributing editor

I was rather surprised at the results of a survey I conducted last year; approximately 40 percent of respondents were unable to answer questions about their CMMS vendor because they either had no CMMS, or were using a homegrown version.

I've seen a handful of companies that could be considered true candidates for a homegrown CMMS. In almost every case, these have been government or government-related organizations with highly unorthodox and restrictive requirements.

I've also come across several IT departments, or technology-savvy individuals within the maintenance department, who feel a need to build an application in-house because they "want it done right." Sometimes this stems from a lack of understanding of the generic nature of the application. Other times, they're looking for applications to write because they want to take on some interesting work, build an empire, experiment with new software tools or simply survive a downsizing.

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The following summarizes the key advantages and disadvantages of writing a CMMS from scratch or heavily customizing an off-the-shelf package.

Advantages

Competitive edgeOne significant outcome of buying even the best off-the-shelf CMMS is that you're no better off than any of your competitors who might be using the same package. However, customization provides an opportunity to develop more features and functions that can provide a competitive advantage. For example, tightly integrating the CMMS with a proprietary shop-floor data collection system that's monitoring machine downtime could record and report on the maintenance staff response time to each downtime occurrence, the duration of downtime, as well as codes for problem, cause and action. This system could be integrated with an ERP system so production interruptions get rescheduled appropriately. This high degree of integration requires customization, but may provide a major competitive edge.

Better fitThe argument most often stated in favor of customization is to improve the fit with the unique requirements of the maintenance and operations departments. The term unique is debatable in describing the needs of most maintenance departments. Furthermore, most top CMMS packages have the flexibility to handle any variations.

Greater control and flexibility-Nowadays, one can't predict whether a CMMS vendor will be in business next year, no matter how big or successful it may appear now. Equally unpredictable is the vendor's flexibility to respond to a company's development requests. In theory, in-house custom programming provides total control over the future of the CMMS. However, every company has competing priorities for spending time and money. If the maintenance department doesn't have much clout, it may be risky to rely on uncertain internal support.

Lower out-of-pocket costsSome companies argue that developing software in-house is cheaper than paying a CMMS vendor hefty fees for licenses, maintenance, consulting and training. There is a price involved in adding a new user, upgrading to a new version, or using new technology. The argument is compelling to some managers because costs are primarily internal when developing homegrown software, but this position is somewhat naive. The economics change if you factor in the cost of not having a modern, well-tested, industry-accepted, feature-rich CMMS available for implementation immediately. Also, senior management must consider work the IT department could be doing instead of developing a CMMS.

Keep it simpleCompanies with 10 or fewer technicians in the maintenance department often are reluctant to spend time and money on CMMS functionality perceived as too sophisticated for their simple needs. Most, however, will accept an employee's offer to build a simple Excel spreadsheet or Access database to help collect equipment history or manage preventive maintenance.

This argument may be compelling, but in my view, a better approach is to buy one of the many tried-and-tested, low-end CMMS packages for about $1,000 and get the functionality needed immediately.

Disadvantages

Limited experience baseA CMMS vendor draws on the experience of hundreds of companies in developing and fine-tuning its software. The homegrown package, by definition, has an installed base of exactly one, which severely limits the opportunity for technology transfer.

Lack of core business focusCompanies that sell computerized maintenance management packages are in the business of producing and enhancing their software. This focus on core competencies produces a superior product. If a company's core business is producing and selling widgets, getting into the software-writing game is somewhat like trying to re-invent the wheel.

Poor upgrade capabilityAs priorities change, competing demands on the IT department may affect how quickly upgrades are released to the maintenance department. As well, individuals familiar with the homegrown software may be assigned elsewhere or no longer work for the company. Competitive forces and the demands of its user base to keep on top of new releases, however, constantly pressure a CMMS vendor to improve the offering.

Longer implementation cycleAn off-the-shelf CMMS package is ready to implement within days of issuing a purchase order. Realistically, a minimum lead time of six months is required to develop a CMMS internally, and can take as long as two years, depending on resource availability and the complexity of maintenance requirements.

Less stable productA customized CMMS tends to have more bugs than an off-the-shelf package because it lacks a substantial user base for pre-testing and qualifying the product.

Tendency to avoid re-engineeringCompanies that customize an application risk digitizing and entrenching poor habits and procedures in the name of achieving a better fit. By working with CMMS vendors and their packages, companies are instead exposed to new ways of managing the maintenance department. The reason is simple. Those CMMS vendors benefit from, in some cases, the collective experience of hundreds of users, and the best practices are reflected in the software.

David Berger is a principal with Western Management Consultants in Toronto, Canada. He is a certified Management Consultant and a registered Professional Engineer. He is Founding President of the Plant Engineering & Maintenance Association of Canada, past President of the Toronto Chapter of the Canadian Society for Industrial Engineering, and a past Vice President of the Institute of Industrial Engineers. He can be reached via email at david@wmc.on.ca

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