Riding the E-commerce Wave

Moldmakers and suppliers to the industry share their experiences and advice from their own travels down the Information Superhighway.

Everybody wants a piece of the business now happening on the Internet, but many are finding out that it is more difficult than it may have first appeared. Moldmakers and suppliers to the industry share their experiences and advice from their own travels down the Information Superhighway.

When you break it all down, a successful business is based on communication. This is especially true in the moldmaking industry. Moldmakers need to listen to and understand their customers - what type of mold is needed, at what cost, in how much time and with what products. Suppliers to the industry must in turn listen to the needs of moldmakers. What machinery or equipment are they looking for, what kind of operation do they run and what kind of investment are they ready to make? These are just some of the many questions that need to be discussed before a business transaction can happen.

In the past, much of this was done through phone calls, advertisements and word of mouth. But now, with the Internet being such an integral part of most companies' daily business, a new form of communication has come into play. And while e-mail and websites allow for greater amounts of communication to be exchanged faster than ever before, both suppliers and moldmakers need to not only be aware of exactly how customers are using their sites, but also how to use the Internet properly in order to maximize their message.

Give Them What They Want

Websites are only effective if they provide the right information and tools to the moldmaker at the right time. However, the responsibility is reciprocal - the appropriate content also depends on website users to provide helpful feedback to the site developers. "The feedback from moldmakers - both good and bad - has been extremely beneficial as we create the web presence that they want," says Bob Starr, marketing services manager for D-M-E Co. (Madison Heights, MI), a manufacturer and distributor of mold tooling, mold components, hot runner systems and electronic controls for the plastics industry.

Glenn Starkey, president of Progressive Components (Wauconda, IL) - a supplier of mold components, mold bases and hot runner systems - agrees, "Rather than focusing solely on the e-commerce aspect of the Internet, we've worked to use our site as an extension of our company's drive to provide value and assistance. That's why you'll find on-line calculators on our site, rather than just launching an on-line order desk.

"We've shaped our site from dialog and survey responses from customers," Starkey continues. "I'd encourage moldmakers to continue to push suppliers with their needs, because they'll find that it is a receptive audience that will help them adapt their site into something valuable to the end user."

However, some moldmakers believe that suppliers may need to listen a little closer. "As far as getting information from the Internet, we really haven't received the right information at the right time," says Amar Patel, design engineer for Product Development Technologies, Inc. (Lincolnshire, IL), a full in-house product service company dedicated to dramatically reducing cycle times for clients. "We found that most of the suppliers' sites don't give enough information."

"I think what moldmakers need to do is provide comments to the website administrators on how the website can be improved for their particular conditions," advises Gabriele Carinci, president of Agie, Ltd. (Davidson, NC), which manufactures EDM and high-speed machining centers.

It may be that moldmakers need to tune in to their users a little more as well, as most report little actual business being done over the Internet. "I have a great website, but have received no business from it," says Stephen Drake, Jr., president of Master Precision Mold Technology (Greenville, MI), a moldmaker that specializes in building two-shot injection molds and test specimen molds. "I think the Internet in the future - for our business - will almost strictly be to help facilitate communication for the management of a tool build."

What moldmakers are reporting is a lot of RFQs, or requests for quotes. "These days, RFQs are coming in less by fax and conventional mail and increasingly by e-mail," says John Kunkle, sales manager for Garner Industries (Lincoln, NE), which provides product design and plastic injection molding for the electronics and communications industries. "Electronic transfer of files allows us to have a copy of the model or drawing so that we can see details that might not be seen on a hard copy, as well as reduces the number of questions we must ask before preparing a quotation. This saves time on the part of the estimator and the customer, and results in quicker, more accurate quotations."

However, the RFQs don't always pan out into actual business. "We have received some quote requests from the Internet, but they have produced minimal sales," notes Jerry Austin, president of Glacier Design, Inc., which offers plastic mold design and mold design services, specifically plastic injection and blow molds. But when a sale does happen, the Internet offers a fast and efficient form of communication. "E-mail has helped program management greatly," says Austin. "We get to the point more concisely now and get answers [in writing] faster."

A Moldmaking Community

"The Internet is going to really take advantage of brand capability and the ability to link that with local customers in a territory or specific area," says Agie's Carinci. "Customers then can take advantage of this networking capability, which they might not have been able to do on their own due to financial reasons. I think that the Internet is going to be a source of technological information and references. I also think that it's going to be the way that customers can address specific problems and find answers to questions on a certain level of complexity any time of the day or night."

And far from distancing the customer from the supplier, the Internet can actually work at fostering better communication between moldmakers and manufacturers. According to Carinci, the Internet allows moldmakers to consider all of their options before contacting their sales rep, thereby reducing some stress. "Moldmakers don't like to be badgered while they are in the evaluation process," he says. "They want to do the evaluation process in their own time, and then take advantage of personal relationships to confirm what they think they've learned through the website. They can then apply what the technology has to offer to their particular situation."

"The Internet has greatly increased our ability to present product, technical, application and company information to a global audience," says Jim Herlinger, president of sp3, Inc. (Mountain View, CA), which specializes in the development and manufacture of diamond-coated carbide products. "We have a place on the page where people can ask for literature or request a sample - more than 50 percent of our literature and sample requests are coming from our website. And I'd say easily that 70 to 80 percent of our international activity is coming from our web page as well."

Herlinger also notes that having a web presence helps in creating a tangible identity for a company. In addition, the website serves as a place to easily disseminate information, especially for customers with problems. "The Internet is here to stay, and it behooves us all to learn how to use it," he says.

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet - and Less Expensive

Another benefit that both moldmakers and suppliers appreciate is how quickly they can exchange information - especially through e-mail. "The Internet is best in its e-mail incarnation - moving engineering changes, schedules and renderings," says Bart Simpson, international marketing director for Delcam plc (Birmingham, England), a developer and supplier of 3-D CAD/CAM software. "It will provide almost instantaneous communication, and simplify and speed up tasks such as getting standardized information such as tooling specifications and engineering requirements."

"The Internet has resulted in shorter deliveries for the moldmaker as we can reduce design time with faster information exchange," says Martin Baumann, marketing manager for Husky Injection Molding Systems, Inc. (Milton, VT), a hot runner equipment manufacturer. "The Internet also simplifies the design process as it allows moldmakers to use the confidential file exchange system to upload CAD drawings directly to our server. We can then review the drawings, design the hot runner system and send it back to them without delay. It's a quick and instant way of exchanging information with our customers' systems."

"The Internet will assist moldmakers to more quickly access the products, services and technical information they need to reduce time-to-market," adds D-M-E's Starr.

Moldmakers are on the same page as suppliers in regard to the Internet's speed of communication. "The Internet has changed the amount of information exchanged and the time it takes to exchange the information with both customers and suppliers," notes Kunkle of Garner Industries. "It also has reduced the cost of information transfer."

"The Internet really speeds the data transfer process and the exchange of information between the moldmaker and the customer," says Product Development Technologies' Patel. "I think it will make people look a little farther than their normal travels - it reduces some of the location issues."

Valiant Tool and Mold Inc. (Windsor, Ontario) - a designer and manufacturer of injection and compression molds for the automobile and aerospace markets - has been using the Internet for math data transfer only thus far. "About 90 percent of math data for our new work and engineering changes is done via the Internet," says sales manager Jim Roe. "This represents an improvement in turnaround time for quoting and responding to feasibility inquiries over the traditional courier-delivered data tape. We use the Internet with our primary component suppliers to exchange mold design information."

Glacier Design, Inc.'s Austin notes that the Internet "has provided a great way to solve problems with CAD/CAM vendors for transferring files for mold bases or parts, or for communicating with customers and vendors. E-mail is far superior to our old file transfer methods, and we use it a lot."

Another form of file transfer that moldmakers are taking advantage of is FTP sites, especially for larger, more complicated files. "Considering the large size of model files, we encourage the use of our company's FTP site," says Kunkle. "This offers a faster, more secure transfer of files and it can be accessed 24 hours a day. It is difficult to transfer large files as e-mail attachments, so if a file is larger than one megabyte, we urge customers to post them on our FTP site or place them on their FTP site so we can retrieve them."

Look Before You Leap

While the Internet may appear to be the easy solution to communication and data transfer issues, it's important to remember that like any tool, it is only useful if you know how to use it properly. "Companies need to train employees to be comfortable using the tools available to them," says Kunkle. "Users also must be aware of computer viruses and employ a good virus scan program to protect the company's computer system."

Kunkle also believes that every company needs to take the time to consider exactly what it wants from the website and how it wants the site to look before jumping into the Internet. "Companies should think through what they are going to do about their Internet presence before building a site so that they can do everything the right way," he notes. "They shouldn't be in a rush to get just anything up there."

Internet users also need to be sure that any website they may consider doing business with is legitimate and reputable. Just because it is fast does not ensure that the quality is up to par. "I think that what we need is a way to grade websites on factors such as quality, cost, delivery, reliability, etc.," says Joe Wersching, president of Neuwer Tool Corp. (Wheeling, IL), which provides custom and precision-made round core pins, sleeves and cavities. "This also would help people looking for a new source to know if a company is reputable or not." Wersching notes that there would have to be a level of accountability for those grading the site. "You cannot do this anonymously - you would have to identify your name and company."

"When a company or a customer is looking for information on the web, they need to make sure it's a legitimate business and not just a website," says Kunkle. "Know exactly with whom you are dealing with before you place an order. Just use your common sense."

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