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...

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