Most catalogs are mini-textbooks chock full of useful information and worthy of more than casual perusal. But it takes too long to read catalogs and absorb their information. And they can be somewhat tedious. Interactive Web sites are a better way to convey the same information. And when done right, engineers should need only 10% of the time on an interactive site to do what might be done with a paper catalog.
Technical and commercial Web sites that entice engineers into coming back are usually interactive and fast, provide diagrams, charts, technical data, and 3D models, are easy to use, and let engineers ask question and voice opinions. "If a Web site is nothing more than a static online catalog, users might check in once and not bother with it again," says Cheryl Alley, manager of electronic marketing for Boston Gear and Warner Electric.
A lot of the first engineering Web sites were just that, she says. They did not fulfill the potential of e-commerce.
Interactive web catalogs should let shoppers make full use of its information, including tables, equations, charts, rules, wizards, and calculators. The site becomes a virtual sales engineer.
To find the best ways to revamp dull engineering Web sites, we talked to people at software companies, commercial firms with online sites, and service firms who convert 2D drawings into online models.
"Early Web sites made a lot of mistakes," says Del Merenda, CEO of i-Mark Inc., (www.imark.com) a developer of online catalogs and technical Web sites. "Their creators didn't listen to what customers wanted and just put static catalogs online. Or, they didn't bother to collect all the meaningful information scattered around a company. A lot of design rules, for example, are still stored in the heads of their engineers. That doesn't do design engineers any good if they select an incorrect component."
The big transition companies have to go through, says Merenda, is a mindset from an 8.5 X 11-in. format to a CRT screen. "Companies have to think beyond the static page into an interactive arena that does not have to show tables," he says. "To get started, we typically select a product family and build an alpha-version catalog to show the characteristics of that product line. When 3D part models are to be made available, we store them in a database called 3D PartStream.net from SolidWorks." The database includes a format and functions for getting a company's parts online into an interactive catalog.
But before calling professional Web designers like Merenda, our experts suggest asking customers what they want to see on your site. Many will probably mention particular formats such as DXF, the drawing exchange format from AutoCAD. "Don't forget those who work without CAD programs, such as those in the purchasing department," suggests Greg Pennings, Web director with Groschopp Inc., a motor manufacturer in Sioux Center, Iowa. "Include PDFs, the portable-document format from Adobe. These files can show pictures of products and other information that clients can display, print, and study." Pennings says his team previously made drawings available only in HTML format, making numbers and small lines difficult to read. PDFs solve the lack-of-clarity problem.
"And don't ignore potential customers," he cautions. "They're easy to find. They're the ones calling with questions not answered on your site. For instance, a few newcomers to the Groschopp site (www.groschopp.com) were asking for motor-connection diagrams, so Pennings' staff put them online.
Get ready to do a little searching, too, because information people ask for can be nearly everywhere. "We've found useful information in different databases, ERP systems, marketing files, paper catalogs, and engineering files," says Merenda. "And there are photos, charts, and stuff that fall outside of ERP," he adds.
Part models are a useful addition to any site. The database in 3D PartStream.net has tools to build and maintain part categories. Once you add a base model, all associated information goes into tables in the 3D PartStream server.
And brace yourself for unpleasant news, suggests David Wayne, president of Cadalog.com, Seattle. "The first problem we often run into is that the paper catalogs may not have enough information in their drawings to model parts," he says. "Online catalogs generally use a parametric routine that creates the family of parts based on one "master" drawing. Many times, dimensions in the paper catalog that would drive the master model are incomplete, or threads or a bolt size might be missing. We have to find that data. When the missing information is not critical, as it might not be for a surface finish, it's filled in with an educated guess."
Because 3D part models are frequently asked for, "Companies that want to put 3D versions of their products on the Web must consider the level of detail they'll expose customers to," says James Geibutowski, an application engineer with SolidWorks Inc. "The site should give users enough information without divulging proprietary design secrets. A few companies defeatured models to the extent users see only an envelope and integration point. On the other hand, where there is a close relationship with a supplier, password protection can limit who sees models and details are left in," he adds.
The first product to put on the Web should feature much of the company's engineering capability. "It does not have to be the simplest product," says Merenda. "Select something that shows senior management what the catalog can do and how the company will capture new business. Show something that has pizzazz."
"Parts in 3D may be the craze, but there are more 2D customers, so don't ignore them," suggests Cadalog.com's Wayne. "It is sometimes harder to do 2D because there are multiple views and you have to decide how many to show. But on the plus side, there are only two file formats, DWG and DXF, and both are related to AutoCAD."
And because converting drawings to models takes time, consider starting with some of both to get a catalog up and running quickly, says i-Mark's Merenda. He says the Boston Gear site is as an example of 2D and 3D information done well.
To help users size parts, Merenda suggests including wizards and performance calculators not just static tables. "The wizard assists the less initiated," says Merenda, "And a performance calculator is better suited for experienced buyers." It's also a good idea to present those using calculators with 3D models of the selected component.
Of course, the time needed to put an interactive catalog online depends on the organization of its content. "As a benchmark, a catalog like Boston Gear's took from three to five months to get online."
Getting interactive catalogs on line is usually just the first step. A second allows for customizing components for jobs in which standard components won't work. Rod Jones, engineering systems manager, Banner Engineering Inc., Minneapolis, is preparing for this second step. "Customers who need special devices have been asking questions such as ‘This sensor looks right for the job in mind, but can you make the cable longer, or put a different connector on it, or squeeze out another foot of range,'" he says. Their manufacturing arm is already capable of building ones and twos at the same time they build 10,000 of something. But to date there has been little automation involved.
"Automating a customized build system requires a phased approach," says Jones. His team is working with PDMLink from PTC, Needham, Mass. "The software has features that capture data and automate processes, such as engineering changes," says Jones. Based on design rules and a quantity, the system quickly generates a cost figure. If it's acceptable to the inquiring engineer, the system signals the ERP system to generate a BOM and work order."
What's more, says Jones, PTC has built in a fast implementation system that includes a series of best business practices as described by the Configuration Management Institute of Scottsdale, Ariz. (www.icmhq.com). At one time, two-year implementations for new engineering business systems were not uncommon. Thanks to the best business practices as described in the latest ideas from the Institute, a system such as PDMLink can be up and running in five to seven weeks. "There is no need to attend class to learn the system because its in the software," adds Jones.
An example of best practices includes how ECOs will be handled. An engineering change over a certain dollar value, for instance, or a certain safety requirement, has to follow a detailed and prescribed process. It might require review and approval from a vice president of engineering, or a particular director, and then to inspection, suggests Jones.
While new online experiences might be good for users, how would a company calculate a payback period for setting up and maintaining interactive systems? Merenda says partial payback comes from not having to print paper catalogs. Emhart Black and Decker, a company that keeps an eye on the cost of leads, found that they used to spend $1,000 to generate a lead and get it to a distributor. Its online system, however, slashed the cost to $2.50 for the same activity. Other savings comes from a reduction of lost time. For instance, engineers are not interrupted by people looking for readily available information. What's more, says Merenda, when users find sites entertaining, they use them more often. Additional benefits for the effort includes the automatic generation of marketing data, such as what parts are hot and which are not.
The final step in Web-site development is mass customization, designing exactly what a client wants. Most of these systems are homegrown designs based on PDM systems. For instance, bus maker New Flyer Industries, Canada, has customized iMan from EDS PLM Solutions, St. Louis, so that its sales engineers and a few others can select components they'd like to have in a bus. The system then assembles a part list, price, and delivery schedule. Kitchen-cabinet maker Merilatt, on the other hand, uses the FlexAutomation server from Agility Corp., Columbus.
It lets users enter information such as cabinet style, dimensions, and wood. The system generates drawings and a work schedule for the shop. And PTC has demonstrated how its DynamicDesignLink could work for a trailer manufacturer. The systems are just emerging from the software labs but promise to add further pizzazz to engineer Web sites.