Editor, Computer-Aided Engineering
Manufacturers have discovered the Web, and the rush is on to use this technology to boost business — and gain the competitive edge. Companies are experimenting with the Internet, using applications ranging from e-mail to procurement.
In his NC Software and Related Services Market Assessment Report, Al Christman, vice president of CIMdata Inc., an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based market re-search firm, says manufacturers use e-mail as the primary method of internal and external communications. Many obtain specifications off a Web site for projects while others place orders for items such as tooling equipment and CNC machines. A few manufacturers now let customers place orders directly on a Web site.
According to Christman, the Internet is becoming a primary source of information for items such as mold-base catalogs, tool libraries, and machinery handbooks. And, it can provide online troubleshooting services, such as leading machinists through diagnostic procedures.
Most recently, Web sites for procurement, CAM products and services, and rapid prototyping have been gaining favor with manufacturers. Here's a look at a few that have launched or will be launching soon.
In Business to Buy and Sell
Online marketplaces that bring together buyers and sellers are said to reduce costs, cut the purchasing cycle, and improve productivity. And, you'll find plenty of such marketplaces in the manufacturing arena.
One such provider, SupplierOne.com, reports it specializes in custom parts. When manufacturers want to order sheet metal parts, castings, plastic parts, and machined parts, they submit requests for quotation (RFQs) to SupplierOne.com by providing information such as part attributes, CAD part files, and order information. A customer's RFQ is then matched with prequalified suppliers.
A Web-based message board provides the means for buyers and suppliers to communicate. Each time a buyer posts a message to the board, suppliers receive it by e-mail and can respond online. And, if a supplier posts a message, buyers receive it via e-mail. Buyers see all suppliers' messages and all the messages they post. Suppliers do not see each other's messages.
To place an order, the buyer clicks on a special link, triggering an e-mail to the supplier requesting confirmation. The order is not in effect until the supplier confirms it. When the buyer is ready to issue an order, he clicks on "Release Order," which generates an e-mail to the supplier.
There is no charge to buyers for using this service. However, sellers are charged a commission fee based on the size of the order. The fee is presented to sellers before they confirm an order. Both buyers and sellers have the option of rejecting an order.
Another site, MfgQuote.com, connects job shops with companies purchasing custom manufacturing services. Unlike other Web sites, which typically offer or bid for industrial hard goods, MfgQuote.com provides RFQs for precision CNC machining, sheet-metal fabrication, and rapid prototyping as well as software and translation services, according to Mitch Free, president of the Atlanta-based business.
At emachinetool.com, selling metalworking machinery and tooling products is the order of the day. Visitors to the site can find new and used metalworking products without going through third parties.
Products include machine tools, tooling, accessories, software, metal packages, and other metalworking information. End-to-end service focuses on product information, online product comparisons, consulting support, online leasing, and nationwide service capabilities through certified centers.
While many sites serve specific manufacturing segments, AmericanManufacturers.com is all-encompassing: it is said to support the complete purchasing cycle for off-the-shelf and build-to-order products.
According to AmericanManufacturers.com, its patent-pending technologies make it possible for manufacturers to source buyers and sellers. Buyers can get quotes on the products, parts, and materials they need; identify 40,000 manufacturers that produce the parts; and conduct searches for manufacturers by company name, product, or geographic area. Sellers can identify new markets and customers; search for buyers by company name, product, or geographic area; and establish StoreFronts to promote business.
On the CAM Side
CAM services and products are just starting to be offered over the Internet. DP Technology, for example, recently launched CustomerWeb, a family of four Web sites dedicated to serving Esprit users.
The CustomerWeb portal (a collection of related Web sites) includes the company's newsletter and information on Esprit products. From this initial site, users can jump to other DP Technology support sites.
For example, WebBoard is a Web-based forum for users to ask questions and share ideas and solutions with other Esprit programmers. Another site, SupportWeb, provides a three-tiered support system. Finally, the FileLibrary site serves as a central repository of data files such as postprocessors, macros, and add-ins. These downloadable files are accessed through a searchable database.
Another CAM vendor, Delcam, has launched an online data translation service called PS-Exchange for companies that receive CAD data from various sources. It translates data for Unigraphics, Pro/Engineer, or Catia files to IGES and Delcam-native formats. It does not translate Auto-CAD DXF and DWG files.
The no-cost software is available for Windows 98 and NT. With PS-Exchange, the translation software is stored on the user's own computer versus having users send their CAD models to a third-party service. With PS-Exchange, users simply obtain a real-time authorization from Delcam's Web site. This approach is said to return faster results since transferring a short authorization code is quicker than transferring a complex CAD model.
In September, C-Solutions Inc. officially launched its Tools4CAM.com site at the IMTS Show in Chicago. Its objective is to put CAM professionals in control of how they research, try, and buy software and services.
To that end, Tools4CAM.com will offer certain products on a rental basis. What's more, it reports it will be the first Web site to offer a free rapid prototype, created directly from CAD data.
Manufacturers needing a rapid prototype part can soon order it online, thanks to Bits2Parts.com, a site currently in open beta testing. This Web-based service, now part of PlanetCAD, promises to streamline the quotation, communication, and data flow between manufacturers and RP service providers. It provides private, online, personalized work areas for manufacturers to manage the RFQ process, submit RFQ's to RP service bureaus, and upload 3D CAD models for rapid transmission. Selected service bureaus will receive e-mail notification and then access the CAD model data via Bits2Parts.com. Only service bureaus participating in the submission process can access the 3D design data, and once awarded, access to that project closes to all but the manufacturer and the winning bureau.
Going head to head against Bits2Parts.com is ProtoMarket.com, a marketplace that matches buyers and sellers of rapid prototyping, rapid tooling, casting, and CNC machining. RP processes available include stereolithography, laminated object manufacturing, multi-jet manufacturing, selective laser sintering, fused deposition modeling, room-temperature vulcanizing, and Quickcast SLA.
The service is free to buyers. However, sellers pay a sliding commission based on the invoice amount.