Project Management

Build a better test bench for your IT consultancy

The design of your test bench can have a big impact on productivity and profitability. Based on real-world experience, IT consultant Erik Eckel offers five proven tenets of efficient work bench design.

 While you're working diligently to control costs, reduce expenses, and bolster earnings within your IT consultancy, you may be leaking profits where you least expect: on your test bench. I know the idea is disarming. IT consultants typically pride themselves on their tech skills, which usually shine on the work bench.

But how much thought really went into building your office's repair center? IT consultants spend considerable time repairing PCs, removing malware, configuring servers prior to deployment, troubleshooting or staging client laptops, and imaging customer hard disks, but few dedicate much time to planning or configuring effective test bench operations.

If your test center is like that of many IT consultants, you're likely using a design thrown together by necessity with desks, counters, and tools intended for other tasks or, worse yet, simply inherited from a past tenant or business. Ergonomists and occupational therapists recoil at the thought. Their education and experience, lend them an appreciation of the importance of maximizing design and usability factors, no matter how minor, within businesses.

The importance of design

By reconsidering work bench design and implementing efficiencies to test station configuration and layout, you can minimize wasteful movements, improve common cable and tool access, and isolate troublesome variables.

Ultimately, with better test bench design, you can more quickly diagnose failures, speed repairs, and close trouble tickets. The result is improved profitability because you're able to complete more billable tasks per shift.

Design an efficient test bench

I'm no PhD candidate in industrial or occupational systems, but I've made enough mistakes within my own technology office and seen numerous other computer repair firms' test benches to know what works and what doesn't. With that real-world experience in mind, here are five proven tenets of efficient work bench design:

1. Seek plentiful waist-high desk space

I've maintained test benches with the top counter positioned at regular desk height and at waist height, and waist height works best. It comes down to physics.

IT technicians are constantly removing screws, pulling drives from systems, connecting cables, adding peripheral cards, examining displays, and moving between systems in various states of repair. Techs can move more freely and easily when standing, while taller chairs are easily employed for extended tasks. Plus, I notice less back stress when picking up and placing computers and servers on tables waist high vs. regular desk height.

One shortcoming I suffered through too long had an absolute impact on my bottom line: insufficient space. For months I worked within a test bench space that enabled repairing a maximum of two systems simultaneously. This artificially limited the number of systems I could repair on any given day. By rearranging my office to accommodate five or more systems at once, I'm able to more quickly diagnose and complete repairs. I can also stage more systems simultaneously, which frees significant time for addressing other billable tasks. When examining test bench operations, be sure to consider whether a physical space limitation is restricting your capacity; if so, work to identify ways to rearrange work bench operations to free more bench space.

2. Lose the KVM

Eliminating keyboard/video/monitor (KVM) switches is a sacrilegious statement in many technology circles, but the decision to remove KVM switches from my test bench has proven to be one of my wiser changes. Other IT consultants I've met who removed KVM switches share the sentiment.

Test benches are already a dicey proposition; they're being used to test hardware compatibility, diagnose failing components, test new equipment, and trace software failures. Adding notoriously temperamental KVM switches to the mix is a recipe for wasted effort and frustration. I've lost track of the number of times a client system that mated poorly with my office's KVM switch initially sent me troubleshooting in the wrong direction.

Instead, simplify test bench operations and invest in simple but basic keyboards, mice, and monitors. Budget one set per three feet of bench space. Just remember to allow some free bench space for laptop repairs, which typically don't require separate external keyboards, mice, or monitors.

3. Utilize appropriate electrical service

Don't let a client's wayward power supply or malfunctioning system down your production server. Install a separate electrical circuit to power your test bench.

Don't skimp on service, either. A 20-amp circuit should be adequate to power five or six PCs at once, including monitors, but if you frequently configure/repair large servers, contact an electrician to determine if a second 20-amp circuit is warranted.

Once electrical requirements are met, ensure quality surge protectors and battery backups are deployed. Most administrators take precautions to protect against data loss or corruption on production servers; you should do the same on test benches used to install and configure server operating systems. Desktop and laptop repairs, meanwhile, should always be completed on systems connected to surge protectors, at the least.

4. Don't stock just one of everything

Another mistake I made in my consultancy was purchasing one USB hard disk adapter, one test network card, one test video card, etc. At various times over the years, I've needed to image two or three hard disks simultaneously. But with only one USB hard disk adapter in the shop, I found myself having to wait for one imaging task to complete before beginning another (or having to wait to simply retrieve data from a second client hard drive or slave a client disk for malware removal).

The problem is easily remedied. Purchase additional equipment, but be sure to purchase wisely. If you only need an extra NIC two or three times a year, scavenge one from a discarded system or purchase only one additional card. But if you find yourself frequently needing eight to 10 USB hard drive adapters, pick up a dozen. While it may seem wasteful to many small business owners seeking to minimize costs, making simple investments in critical tools can often quickly improve profits.

5. Disregard looks

When I first implemented my test bench, the bench was in clear view of clients that dropped by my office; therefore, I felt the area needed to be tidy, organized, and reveal a minimum number of cables, spare parts, and tools.

In retrospect, I laugh at such silliness. Clients don't care how tidy a work bench looks; they care how quickly and accurately you repair old systems and deploy new equipment.

My work bench, and those of other long-successful consulting groups with which I partner, are designed for efficiency. This means power, Ethernet, keyboard, mice, and video display cables lay everywhere. You can zip-tie them together to help keep a repair center organized and obstacle free, but you shouldn't feel any need to operate the coolest looking bench.

Functionality is the key to an efficient test bench. Thus, spare parts, frequently used tools, and other such items should be in clear view so you can easily reach these items.

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About

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

16 comments
OGINNI
OGINNI

how do you build a purely mechanical test bench to investigate the inertia parameter of a vehicle e. g mass, dynamic center of gravity, moment of inertia, product of inertia and tier forces

ctrimbath
ctrimbath

I agree, I have had my bench going on 15 years. I got rid of the KVM 2 days after I started using it. I have multiple USB hard drive adapters/enclosurs. I have multiple video cards. Multiple network cards including a couple very reliable usb wireless nics. I have outlets a plenty to go arount. I went as far as to have network gear so I can set up clients equipment using their address scheme so that I know that is correct.

reisen55
reisen55

KVM is dead, and my systems are all RDP connected, which makes cable easy - power and an RJ45 does the trick nicely, thank you. Second, OFF THE FLOOR - Do not keep test stuff on the floor as water has a habit of wrecking that area. Chair should be comfortable.

ggc620
ggc620

amazing how all techs eventually think and work alike !i live in tasmania (state of australia). i read your story with great interest it is so similar to my work methods its not funny. i have been building,repairing and installing system in my own small business for 21 years and in that time i have worked out a simple method of system repair, there isn't any !! keeping check on every system that comes into the shop is PARAMOUNT name it and tag it ! immediately and a book to enter all relevent info on contact details. have a shelf system that all incoming and outgoing pcs can be stored. i use a kvm for 2 pc's and always suspect it if the attached pc give trouble on startup. the rest of my benches are stand alone, all cables are wrapped with curly chord together,vga,dmi,sound,kb/mouse,ethernet and power keep it neat! i have another kvm 4 port if i am preparing four pc's of the same brand only with all the same software. i buy in secondhand 5 or 6 lcd monitors 17" or 19" (must have built in speakers) second hand every 15 to 18 months for the workshop,this makes sure your monitors are up to date and have the correct input signals (vga dmi) and then i sell off the older monitors. set aside an area for checking with customer BEFORE they leave as to problem in their pc, i have a small 2 foot square light weight bench on wheels for this purpose. i always buy or salvage items that i need for the workshop in the way of parts or extra gear. hope this info is of use to someone and encourages the rest of us to do a good and honest job for the people we serve.

l_e_cox
l_e_cox

This is a useful and professional overview of this subject. My experience aligns with these tips.

bcolbeck
bcolbeck

Good job on this one. You might also want to look at test machines that you have. We have 3 bench machines for slaving hard drives and cleaning them.

Vgeek
Vgeek

Generally a good article. Our shop has been repairing systems for 15 years, and you are right, it ain't pretty. Banquet tables, with rolling office chairs, the guys scoot back and forth across the room and never stand up. Cardboard boxes hold tools and screws and cable ties, LCDs mounted to the walls, UPS' every 6 feet, three machines for accessing hard drives via USB (or for downloading drivers) one 2 TB storage machine for holding software and HDD images, two NAS servers for long term storage, and two old broken machines for imaging loose drives when the USB machines are full. We built a Barts PE disk to image across the network which is on a seperate subnet to prevent viruses from routing to the office. No KVMs.

Storme_biz
Storme_biz

About Time it came back to repairing the system, and not about "Looking like the Corporate office" I have spent many years telling people the same things you just did, and been quietly shuffled out the door for it, Now I find it hard to return to the Field that I enjoy so much. People just want their computer tools to work. That is what I am all about.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Having sufficient power is a very important point. Not only for convenience, but also for safety and the life of your equipment. It also pays to invest in equipment that consumes less power, such as LCD monitors to replace all those old CRTs.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

If you have a raised floor and you're not in a flood zone, then water shouldn't be a problem.

HeavyChevy71
HeavyChevy71

My bench can handle 4 computers at once but I can only focus attention on 1 at a time. I can start 1 computer doing something and then switch to the next one and so one. Having only one monitor centrally mounted with one keyboard, mouse, and speakers on a 4-port KVM frees up critical workspace I can use to setup the computers.

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

Thanks for the comments. I felt the topic was timely, as I've seen others struggle with strategies for building the most efficient work bench. When it comes down to it, efficiency is the most important factor in speeding repairs.

Chris_Muncy
Chris_Muncy

My lab here at the office is put together with left overs from production, including a 1500 APC UPS. A UPS is very important, especially when testing systems over a long period or that LONG software install or hdd image. Another tip is to have 2 power strips: one on the UPS and one that isn't. The one that isn't on the UPS can be used for printers, fans, soldering irons (yes I still use those) Elevating monitors or mounting them on the back was will free up alot of desk real estate as well.

Scottthetech
Scottthetech

I just got done rebuilding my entire office to fit another workbench. considering the tiny size of my office, this wasn't easy. The guy I replaced wasn't big on doing repairs, so he didn't even have a test bench. I've now got two benches, waist high, on wheels (storage on back side of bench), set up to handle up to 8 towers. While I understand the comment about KVM and the issues they can have, I am using both the traditional PS2 KVM and a newer USB KVM on computers that are up to 13 years old. (School system, no money, don't flame me for trying to repair systems this old, I don't really have a choice with budget shortfalls.)I have not had any issues with the KVM's so far with the older units. The only time I had an issue was when I built a new system from scratch. Direct connected spare mouse/keyboard, problem solved. I also recomend investing in some type of pegboard, or slat board, so you can install hooks right on the wall in front of you. Getting your tools and cables up and out of the way makes a big difference when it comes to finding what you are looking for. I've worked on benches where I had to clear space each time I brought in a system, doesn't work so well. On my new bench, all tools are out of the way, all supplies are on hooks or in the cabinet 5 feet away. Considering I need to go through about 100 computers in the next month, I think it will make a difference.

Erik Eckel
Erik Eckel

I will never use KVMs on a test bench again. With the number of PCs that I must repair, and the number of issues I've encountered with new/reinstalled/other PCs simply not recognizing the mouse or keyboard, I gave up after trying about five different high-quality KVMs. Life's been better ever since.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I have two APC 1000's -- as often as we lose power out here on the island, they're paying their way.

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