I recently ran across a powerful video produced by Atlas Copco, the European maker of mining and construction equipment. The video tells the story of a hypothetical fleet manager at a construction company.
During the two-minute video the fleet manager, Bob, interacts with an online platform created by Atlas Copco that performs a variety of fleet and service management functions. The system Atlas Copco is offering to their customers includes several software applications working in combination. What’s so special about this platform? It’s an example of what enterprises can accomplish by implementing an integrated set of cloud tools, each designed to facilitate a particular business operation.
So, FleetLink takes care of fleet management and maintenance orders, Parts Online handles part lookup and parts ordering (using Documoto as the core application interface), and QR Connect keeps a record of all the machines and devices connected to the system and associated data.
As you see in the video, a fleet manager or service technician who logs in to Atlas Copco’s system can see where their machines are located, the machines’ service status and what maintenance items may be required. They can look up and order parts, and view videos that demonstrate repair procedures. They can even take advantage of automated diagnostic tools to further optimize machine uptime and work scheduling.
The right data flows where it’s needed, exactly when it’s needed for employees to efficiently complete their tasks. This is the future of service, and it’s a reality now for Atlas Copco and their customers.
The magic behind Atlas Copco’s system is the ease of integrating modern cloud applications thanks to common standards and protocols. Grizzled IT veterans cringe in horror at the thought of converting and migrating data from older legacy systems, but the software world is finally moving past those terrifying projects.
And the Documoto platform has proven its ability to play a vital role in a fully integrated cloud/SaaS service solution for top tier manufacturers. If you are curious about how your aftermarket service organization might benefit from modern parts management, give Documoto a quick spin by requesting a demo today!
Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) devote most of their sales and marketing resources toward selling new units and discovering untapped markets. This is logical, since the majority of their revenues generally come from new equipment sales.
However, it’s a well-known fact that service and parts sales for capital equipment (that is, commercial and industrial machinery with operating lifespans of a decade or longer) are large—and growing—sources of profits for many OEMs.
Because repair and maintenance services—along with replacement parts and supplies—typically boast higher profit margins than new model sales, these revenue streams can contribute greatly to a manufacturer’s top line.
Traditionally, parts were sold by OEMs through one of two channels, either through a dealer network or direct to the equipment owner. Dealers kept printed parts books at the parts counter to help with parts lookup and identification. Owners may have been given a parts list in an Operator’s Manual and a toll-free phone number, at best.
Of course, the Web has blown away the limitations of those old ways of distributing goods and information. Given that disruption, what’s the best way to sell high-margin OEM parts in the Internet age?
#1 Put It Online
Wouldn’t it be great if mechanics, dealers and other part buyers could find a detailed drawing of every single part in a machine and have complete confidence in the accuracy of that information, because it comes from the machine’s maker?
Unfortunately, many companies still manage online sales by providing a generic contact form with a message saying something like, “Let us know what parts you need, your model number and any other information you have.”
This puts a heavy burden on a potential buyer. I doubt if many customers bother to fill out these forms, but likely decide to call the parts department immediately in order to avoid this unfriendly online experience. Or even worse, a buyer in a hurry will simply perform another online search, seeking an easier way to buy.
Only slightly better than a blank form, the most common format for online parts catalogs is the PDF. In general, these PDF files are not searchable or indexed by search engines, either on the Web or on the OEM website. That means they’ll never appear in search results, and users are required to browse through, page by page, in order to find the assembly or part they’re looking for.
What OEM equipment owners, dealers and other buyers need is an online parts catalog with as much specific detail as possible. That means clear images or drawings, expanded part descriptions, a history of superseded part numbers, availability, inventory locations and other data that can only be provided by the manufacturer. Depending on the software used and the business objective, companies may choose to add eCommerce functionality to the parts catalog and enable direct online sales.
#2 Make It Attractive and Easy to Navigate
The shorthand for this principle is “customer experience.” Some companies value their customers’ time so little that they publish industrial parts lists on web pages with no illustrations and very little context. Just three or four columns with part numbers, prices and a brief description that may or may not be helpful in making a positive ID. What kind of customer experience does this type of parts list provide?
Wouldn’t it be better to have a clear illustration, or a 3D representation, or even an augmented reality (AR) app that make parts lookup fast and simple? And users should be able to search by part name, number, description or other criteria as appropriate. The technology is readily available for those who are prepared to take advantage.Car mechanic fixing car with augmented reality application
For companies that do provide highly interactive electronic parts catalogs, the contrast for users is remarkable. While many people think of parts as commodity items—and believe that buying decisions are primarily based on price—this is simply not true. Buyers value speed and convenience in ordering, and they will pay to get it.
#3 Make Sure It’s Accurate
Of course, ease of ordering doesn’t matter if dealers and equipment owners buy the wrong part. Or have to buy multiple parts because they don’t know which one fits.
Digital parts catalogs make it easy to keep part information current
How many aftermarket departments track returns and express shipping costs due to customers ordering incorrect part numbers?
In our experience, it’s a subject most people don’t want to talk about. However, we occasionally hear stories about the extreme costs of express freight shipping when an error is made in a critical parts order. And the thousands of dollars an hour that operators lose when machines can’t be repaired on schedule.
Some people view outrageous shipping costs as the price of great customer service and a necessary component of doing business. Wouldn’t it be much greater customer service to actually send buyers the right part the first time?
Achieving close to 100% accuracy is completely realistic with modern parts catalogs that are dynamically generated from a database. Technical publishers don’t have to wait a year before printing the next edition of an outdated paper catalog, they just quickly change the data in a master database and everyone in the world who opens the digital catalog can see the updates right away.
#4 Add Value with Additional Content
In the “on-demand” world of today’s consumer, it’s not good enough to offer the minimum in terms of product support. That means an OEM can’t just publish a non-searchable PDF parts manual and call it a day. Not if they want to stay in business.
For example, people search online for video demonstrations when they need to fix their personal vehicles, and that behavior is leaking over into the commercial and industrial workplace. If you sell equipment that is maintainable by the owner, make sure you’re the first source that customers think of when they need reputable advice.
What else can you offer that is related to parts, service and technical support? Is your parts catalog smart enough to show buyers related items when they view a part? Like the seal kit that’s necessary when replacing a drive shaft, or a crush washer that goes along with installing a new bolt?
OEMs are in a unique position in their ability to provide buyers with warranty information, inspection certifications, operating instructions and other proprietary data. Turn that information into a competitive differentiator by exposing as much as possible to users.
It all adds up in a customer’s mind when they think about a manufacturer’s brand reputation and how much loyalty they will feel the next time they decide to make a major equipment purchase.
Remember, it’s much easier (and cheaper) to sell to an existing customer than it is to land a new one. Treat your current product owners at least as well as you treat potential prospects. That means giving online visitors the product information they want and need to keep their machines running.
What’s behind the currently popular technology buzzwords, “digital transformation” and “digitization”? You’ll find these terms displayed on many technology-oriented B2B websites, from consulting firms to software vendors.
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what these companies are offering, or what tangible benefits you’re going to receive after your “transformation”! At Digabit, we want to do a better job of communicating the details of our product offering and its value proposition.
In that spirit, let’s discuss why this thing we’re calling “digitization” is important. Why should manufacturers embrace digital transformation? And how does the idea of digitization get translated into strategy and successful business outcomes?
First, the motive for investing in digital change is simple: the longer you wait, the farther you fall behind your competition.
Do you think the companies that resisted the move from electric typewriters to word processing software for the longest gained some advantage in the marketplace? Or those who waited to switch from locally installed desktop software to a client-server model? In hindsight, it’s easy to see that these transitions were inevitable.
The Move Toward Digital Content
For customers and end users of content, digital means receiving the information you need exactly when you need it, on whatever device is at hand: smart phone, tablet, desktop, or a wearable device like a smartwatch or glasses.
Now the question is, how do you “transform” text and other valuable content from its current form into something that can be delivered to users whenever and wherever they ask for it?
Most people are aware that digital information is different from information stored within a material object like a book. But when technology vendors talk about digital, they’re not simply talking about information stored as bits on a hard drive or a DVD, either.
While people often use “digital” and “electronic” interchangeably, there are clear differences when it comes to information and content management. And the common perception of the term digital has evolved.
CDs and DVDs store digitally formatted data, but that doesn’t make them “digital” for our purposes.
Technically speaking, digital means information stored as a series of binary digits (normally 0 and 1). However, from the perspective of a company trying to build a digital enterprise, information stored on a DVD is no more digital than the information stored on a magnetic cassette tape.
Electronic Is Not Digital
Electronic documents are fundamentally mirror images of paper documents, simply displayed on a screen. There may be basic search capability in electronic formats, as you’ve probably experienced in text documents created by word processors and text editors. However, these files are still generally stored and managed as separate, disconnected files.
Electronic information in the form of a DVD doesn’t do much more than the cassette tape that’s been around since the 1960s. It stores static information, and you can’t change that information in any meaningful way aside from erasing and replacing it with some other information.
In other words, the data stored on a DVD is certainly digital, in strictly technical terms, but it’s not digitized in the sense of being agile, portable and easily reusable.
PDFs Are Not Digital
More advanced electronic documents, like the latest PDF formats, can offer interaction in the form of user-fillable fields and other features, but they are still not digital. We can mimic some of the capabilities of digital information by searching and indexing the content of a format like PDF, but that requires another type of software to create one additional element: a database.
Digital = Database
The foundation of digital technology is the ability to store and manipulate pieces of data, and further to define (or allow an end user to define) relationships between those data objects.
When you listen to an audio CD or watch a movie on DVD, the sound and images have been converted to a digital format. Aside from that, the information they contain may as well be on a vinyl record album.
Relational vs. Flat Database Architecture
In order to take advantage of the ability to modernize business processes through better data management, modern applications employ a relational database as a core component.
The first generation of databases simply stored related pieces of information in one “flat file” or table.
Flat file databases are still used in many applications where the number of records is relatively small. If you ever use Microsoft Excel to record and sort data in a table, you are essentially creating a flat database.
But within sophisticated software systems, the world has moved on to a more powerful solution, the relational database. Relational databases store information in multiple tables, not just one. That’s what makes it possible to rapidly search millions of records, to enable complex data analysis, and to discover relationships between data entities.
A properly designed business application database can contain hundreds or even thousands of data tables.
Relational databases let users manipulate and analyze thousands of object properties.
Luckily, you don’t have to understand or remember any of this in order to take advantage of Documoto’s relational database and its ability to search for parts, create associations between machines and all their parts, and suggest purchases in buyers’ shopping carts.
Documoto takes the hard work out of building a hierarchy of digital data that is explicitly designed to organize parts and assemblies. Neither the authors who create parts catalogs or end users see databases or the raw data they contain. The program’s interface prompts catalog creators to upload files and parts data, add tags, and enter additional information, and the application builds the parts information database in the background.
Now you know the magic behind digital data processing within a relational database, but we still haven’t defined digital transformation and how it can impact business processes throughout an organization.
Benefits of a Digital Business Model
We’ve briefly discussed using a database as the foundation to create modern parts catalog in the context of the Documoto platform. However, this is just one potential application that could be part of a larger digital business strategy.
When you have parts data stored in a non-proprietary format in a database, you have the flexibility to use that data in any number of ways. You can synchronize and exchange data with other application databases, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) software.
One major goal of digitization is to automate manual processes like data entry. Entering information about a parts order should generally require very little decision making, so there’s no reason to use valuable human labor for that chore.
With software applications like Documoto and ERP systems, there’s no need. You can store pricing information, product inventory and other data in the ERP’s database, while managing part numbers, descriptions, and assembly drawings in Documoto.
When it’s time to display a parts catalog to an end user, data is pulled from whichever database has the relevant information.
Digital Workflows Optimize Business Processes
Setting up relationships between two (or more) applications requires some technical savvy, but integrations like this are the backbone of many digital transformation strategies. This allows you to store and manage one set of data, but let that data flow and be re-used wherever it’s needed to optimize business processes.
So, your aftermarket sales reps see the same parts data in a shopping cart as your service team sees in the parts books. Dealers, distributors and equipment owners can be shown different prices, pulled from the ERP where price lists are stored. There’s no need to create three sets of price documents, because the application knows to show the right information to the right user.
The information is dynamic, meaning application interfaces get information from the appropriate databases in real time and display live data. Not last week’s or last year’s data, like you might find in a simple PDF or a printed catalog.
This article only scratches the surface of the opportunities open to companies that want to maximize operational efficiency by improving the use of data and building digital workflows.
If you’re wondering whether your aftermarket operations can benefit from implementing a relational database system to manage parts information, publish accurate digital part catalogs, and empower online part sales, contact the Digabit sales team today!
Instead of looking at data or metrics for the answer, ask your team
If someone came up to you and asked, “Is your business winning or losing today?” how would you answer? More importantly, how would you come to that conclusion? Would it be looking at sales numbers? Safety ratings? Number of products made?
These numbers and metrics are obviously very important. But I challenge you to look at winning and losing a different way. Instead of crunching numbers, ask your employees who are taking care of the daily activities on the floor.
What insights they have might surprise you, and if you can identify trends and issues, it could lead to beneficial changes to your operations.
The value of hearing from people on the floor
We all have unique skill sets that allow us to excel at our jobs. For senior leadership teams, this is usually focusing on the bigger picture and long-term strategies for the company. But, this can lead to a disconnect from the day-to-day operations. To gain back that perspective, talk with your employees in different positions and departments. Ask them the question “Are we winning or losing today? Why?”
How ever they answer, ask a few follow up questions to find out the cause. If they’re feeling like they’re losing, why is that? Was a machine broken that day that slowed down production? Does your customer service team feel inundated with phone calls and it takes too long to respond?
The feedback can be useful to see if there are reoccurring problems or themes. If employees bring up issues, ask them if they have ideas for solutions. They’re the experts at their role, and their suggestions might be something that is easily implemented. Or, they might have proposals for operational changes to make everyone more successful.
At the end of the conversation, Don’t forget to thank them. Most importantly, follow up. This will keep an open chain of communication and reminds people they are appreciated and valued.
Find the tools to solve your problem instead of seeking out a problem for your tools to solve
How many times have you been pitched a cool new tool that will “revolutionize your business”? And how many times have you bought it, told your team to use it and been frustrated when the results aren’t as promised?
This is due to finding a solution and then looking for a problem to solve. If you’re looking for ways to use a product, or you don’t have a reason to use it right away, it’s not valuable.
Instead, once you’ve identified areas that need improvement via your internal conversations, start looking for a product to solve the problem. Keep your employees engaged by having them participate in choosing a solution. Not only will they have a better idea of what they need it to do, but it creates buy-in early on, and employees will be more likely to use it when it’s in place. Take the time to train employees on the new tool, so that they can be successful.
This method works.
We had a customer that followed a model like this. Viking Range produces high-end residential ranges and appliances and is one of the leading American brands in that vertical.
Senior leadership identified a need to increase their efficiencies in their publishing department. They system relied on an outside vendor to update their content via static PDFs and spreadsheets. Because everything had to be updated individually, if a part was changed and used in dozens of different pieces of equipment, it took even more staff time to make all of the updates. In total, it was taking TWO WEEKS to create a single parts book because of the processes that were set up. The technical publishers knew they needed a better way to execute revisions. Senior leadership listened, took into account the suggestions from employees, and researched and evaluated products that could fix this cumbersome process.
They chose Documoto, because the cloud-based relational database allowed technical publishers to update a part once and have it populate across any materials that part was found, solving one of the biggest frustrations.
Viking’s technical writers and illustrators started using the software right away, and the results were immediate. It only takes the publishing team 30 minutes to make changes and distribute. It has also given control over the whole process to the publishing team, instead of having to rely on outside vendors. This accurate and immediate information distribution has had a ripple effect and had a positive impact throughout the business. (You can read the full story here).
Viking’s story is just one example of how this approach can revolutionize your business using employee feedback and finding solutions to problems (instead of looking for problems for your solution). Once you’ve taken these steps, ask yourself the question again: “Is my business winning or losing?”
This time, the answer should be, “Winning. I’ve worked with employees to help solve our operational issues, leaving them happier and more productive, and our numbers and data reflect that.”
The manufacturing industry is going through a revolution, and companies that don’t modernize their business practices are going to be left behind.
It’s been several decades since manufacturing companies began adopting software and tools to make internal processes more efficient: CAD for engineers, desktop publishing and graphics programs for writers and designers, and accounting software for bookkeepers, for example.
But the digital impact on our world and economy has changed how customers expect to do business. Now companies are feeling pressure to extend the benefits of technology and information sharing to their customer base, in the form of greater support and improved service.
With websites open and operating 24-hours-a-day, customers have come to assume a higher standard when it comes to accessing product information, from technical specifications to operating instructions to video tutorials.
That same expectation is also driving companies to invest in more robust eCommerce technology. No one wants to spend two hours on the phone trying to look up and order the right parts. Mechanics can’t wait a week to repair a machine that costs its owner thousands a day in downtime.
Technology allows employees to work smarter, not harder. And modernizing distribution channels to effectively sell parts and other products online can be a game changer for OEMs.
According to an article in Chief Executive, 80% of manufacturing executives know that digitizing their enterprises is a critical driver to stay competitive. However, only 37% have a strategy in place, and only 13% of organizations have digital manufacturing capabilities today.
As these numbers show, there is a huge opportunity for companies who embrace technology and get a comprehensive strategy in place as soon as possible. Those that do will be the industry leaders in the coming decade.
How much time do your employees spend looking for information in a day? Once they find it, how accurate is it?
If you use SOLIDWORKS Composer or similar publishing tools to transform CAD data into technical documentation, you already understand the importance of providing clear and detailed illustrations in materials for customers.
Which is why it’s surprising that so many manufacturers invest in tools like Composer, but then take the valuable images they produce and export them as standalone PDFs. If you’re creating technical illustrations and parts info from a data-rich environment and then importing it into a desktop tool like FrameMaker or InDesign, your company is throwing away a large part of their investment and making employee’s jobs harder down the line.
By creating standalone PDFs, the amount of labor required to create the parts catalogs and more importantly, to maintain them, is unsustainable– leaving publications staff with the constant feeling they are drowning in their work. In addition, you lose valuable data, interactivity, and the efficiency of publishing in a cloud environment.
But, by adding Documoto to your publishing workflow, you can harness the power of a relational database specifically designed to create and manage parts book content for complex equipment.
Why add Documoto to your publishing workflow?
Easily translate images and bills of materials (BOMs) from Composer into XML, the first step in creating a structured data environment.
Re-use parts and assembly information in an unlimited number of documents.
Keep up with engineering changes by simply updating parts and assemblies in one location – Documoto automatically updates other books that refer to those components.
Automate content creation and updates with ERP integrations, APIs and web services.
Join us at SOLIDWORKS World 2017
If you’d like to see Documoto in action and learn how it can be a benefit to you, come visit us in the Partner Pavilion at SOLIDWORKS World 2017, taking place Feb. 5-8 at the Los Angeles Convention Center!
Come see us at SOLIDWORKS World 2017 from Feb. 5-8 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. We’ll be onsite in the Partner Pavilion providing live demonstrations of Documoto, and our team will be available to answer your questions.
SOLIDWORKS World is a 3-day conference where attendees can learn about the latest technologies and select from more than 200 breakout sessions on topics ranging from design automation and electrical design to simulation and product data management.
Stop by Digabit’s booth (#200) in the Partner Pavilion and learn how to:
Streamline publishing with SOLIDWORKS – Composer – PDM – Documoto
Convert BOMs and illustrations into structured data for search and re-use
Enable online sales using Documoto Cloud Storefront
Over 20 years ago, the Harvard Business Review published a commentary by the CEO of Caterpillar, website Donald Fites. The article is titled, “Make Your Dealers Your Partners,” and it discusses foreign competition, the importance of after-sale service, and the huge role that Caterpillar’s dealers play in maintaining Cat’s market leader position. It’s illuminating to read this decades-old perspective and realize that, with all our technology and the incredible growth of global trade, not that much has changed in the fundamental distribution strategy for heavy equipment OEMs. While some may view these arrangements as antiquated or archaic, there are many good reasons why OEMs choose to maintain traditional dealer networks as their primary distribution channels.
Over the past several years, all the business pundits, management consulting firms, and enterprise software sellers have jumped on the same bandwagon when it comes to the future of B2B sales…
Younger buyers are digital natives, and they want to buy online
Multichannel (or omni-channel) sales are necessary to retain or gain market share
Global competition is commoditizing products of all types at a faster rate
Digabit understands this mentality. Many manufacturers are interested in direct-to-consumer sales, similar to a B2C retail eCommerce environment. It means customers can order any time and anywhere, using any payment method, with a choice of shipping alternatives and other buyer-friendly options.
This idealized business model appears to cut out the traditional roles of distributor and dealer. In the hypothetical model, customers know exactly what they want, and they want to satisfy their needs at the lowest cost, with the least effort.
But for manufacturers of complex, expensive equipment, this “ideal” is a mirage.
Whether a company makes trucks, industrial robotics, or a 200,000-lb. wheel loader, the real world of capital equipment sales and after-sale service and support is a lot messier than the ideal scenario presented in a consulting firm’s strategy recommendation. Some manufacturing verticals still receive huge value from the physical presence of a dealer network.
Benefits for OEMs that build strong dealer relationships
Dealership employees are the OEM’s human face, for everything from warranty management to promotional collaboration. It’s true that everyone gets frustrated with phone support, help desks and impersonal customer service. But we’re clearly not at the point where apps and artificial intelligence can replace those functions…and some people still prefer face-to-face communication.
In spite of the hype about drone delivery and other futuristic fulfillment methods, having a tangible product in inventory within a reasonable driving distance is important to some large equipment owners.
Nobody aside from the OEM knows as much about products and how they’re used as dealers who work with actual owners and operators every day. From providing service and maintenance, to cross- and upselling other OEM products, a great dealer’s product knowledge is still more relevant and accurate than online sources.
Customer loyalty and retention are highly influenced by dealer performance. Rather than being archaic artifacts, dealers provide assurance for buyers who spend millions on equipment. Does anyone want to buy a $1,000 part for a $500,000 machine from an anonymous website? I don’t. That type of sale still requires a level of trust and accountability that you won’t get from slick websites or one-click processes.
In short, the OEM-dealer relationship is neither dead nor dying. The model needs some refinements that are readily achievable by modern technologies. For example, OEMs need better visibility into dealer activity and inventories. And dealers need better communication tools and higher quality product information from OEMs. Technology is poised to tighten and strengthen OEM ties to their distribution channels, rather than alienating—or outright eliminating—their most effective support system.
With over 20,000 registered users, Digabit’s Documoto platform has generated enough data for us to estimate the return on investment (ROI) for various scenarios at manufacturing companies.
Here is one common dilemma: While it’s a given to create electronic parts catalogs for new and current models, some of our customers have decades’ worth of older models that are still in operation and require ongoing service and maintenance. Older units tend to generate more parts orders, so it may prove worthwhile to convert older parts catalog content into an interactive online format to help capture more of those revenues.
In a traditional desktop publishing environment, where the end product is often a paper copy and/or PDF, the process of converting and migrating older files and data into an acceptable format is so time-intensive that most companies cannot justify the labor and expense to update past technical documentation.
However, Documoto’s publishing platform automates or eliminates many manual tasks, like copy-and-paste and other layout chores, once a company has loaded its product data into the database.
So, how do you determine whether it’s worth the time and trouble to move older product info into Documoto?
Let’s assume a manufacturer has eight extremely popular models of earth-moving machines for which they want to update support documentation. Using desktop tools, Digabit customers have reported taking three weeks or longer per model for the publications department to convert older data and publish high-quality PDFs. That equates to a 24-week backlog of work to update eight parts catalogs.
We’ll conservatively estimate that the average publications employee compensation equals $50,000 a year. That means the cost of creating updated parts catalogs is roughly $23,000 for labor alone. And six months’ worth of labor during which those employees aren’t accomplishing anything else of value.
Imagine that you had a publishing system in which you could create electronic, print and PDF catalogs in three days versus three weeks?
Now you’re looking at around $4,600 in labor to update your legacy catalogs. Similar savings can be achieved every time a revenue-generating parts catalog needs updating. And it doesn’t take many returned parts, hours of phone support, or lost part sales to add up to the cost of transforming legacy to digital.
What are we not factoring in? The huge opportunities afforded by freeing up five months of publishing labor. And the potential boost in aftermarket sales provided by having up-to-date parts information in Documoto’s Cloud Storefront (with additional subscription costs). Customers have proven their willingness to pay for the convenience of buying online, especially when they know they’re getting the right, high-quality OEM parts!
How do manufacturers of heavy equipment and machinery typically sell parts for repairs and ongoing maintenance? Most would not be very successful running print ads like the one from the Pullford Co. at the top of this post. However, some companies still employ similar tactics to sell to online prospects.
Print ad circa 1910 from C. L. Best, precursor to today’s Caterpillar. Note the instruction to “Write for catalogues, terms, etc.” How times have changed…or not, in some cases.
In this era of transition from legacy processes to increasing digitization of everything, how are manufacturers doing at creating easy-to-use online experiences for buying OEM parts?
The results are mixed. At the upper end of the spectrum, many advanced manufacturers have dedicated dealer/customer portals with secured log ins and some eCommerce functionality.
However, there are still plenty of profitable, successful companies who offer poor customer experiences when it comes to parts lookup and ordering. Let’s look at examples of just three of the deadliest sins committed by manufacturers in the online sales arena.
Sin #1: Generic Web Form
The screenshot at left is from the site of a $6-billion manufacturer of heavy construction equipment. Users can select a type of machine and model number, then enter text into an input field simply labeled: “description of parts needed.” The instructions at the top of the form state, “Your request will be directed to your local dealer who is equipped to give you the accurate answers to your needs.”
Okay. I get that this company is beholden to their dealer channel. If I absolutely must order through a dealer, why even bother offering this form? After submitting the form, then what? Wait for the local dealer to email or call back. When will that be? Who knows?
Sin #2: Static PDF Catalog
The number of manufacturers who generate over $1 billion in annual revenues and still offer PDF downloads of parts catalogs is simply astounding. This is likely the most common sin regarding online user experience. We won’t highlight any particular example here, in the interest of not embarrassing the worst offenders. If you’re curious, take a look at the Fortune 1000 and visit some of the manufacturing companies’ websites. It won’t take long to discover your own examples.
The quality of online PDF parts catalogs varies greatly. Some show long lists of part numbers and names with no illustrations. Others display crude drawings with part names but no numbers. Is it really helpful to display a photo of an assembly and list the part numbers underneath with no exploded views? Not so much. Grab a cup of coffee and prepare for a long phone call….
Sin #3: Generic Web Page with No Clear Direction
Most larger companies are more sophisticated than this, but the screen shot shows a corporate web page of a manufacturer that generates between $20-50 million in sales. There is a street address and several contact numbers listed on the page, so I guess the user is supposed to pick up the phone or write a letter to inquire about buying parts or getting equipment serviced. The company’s not giving you any more clues than that.
What do I do? Call someone, I guess. Just like 1918 (see top image).
NOTE: This article was originally published in the Center for Information-Development Management’s (CIDM) Best Practices newsletter in October 2016. The article was contributed by Richard Ackerman, Digabit’s Senior Director of Technical Sales.
The technical publishing world has increasingly gravitated toward structured data concepts and tools over the past decade. From XML to DITA to component content management systems (CCMSs), the evolution continues thanks to savings in labor, improved accuracy, and optimized workflows afforded by structured data methodologies.
While using structured data to publish technical documentation offers significant efficiencies, it is quite common to find publishers who impose unnecessary challenges upon themselves. This article addresses the top three traps publishers should recognize and avoid.
Stop Putting Intelligence in File Names!
What is the purpose of a file name?
From a software perspective, often the only limiting parameter for a file name is a unique string of accepted characters. However, it is extremely common in practice for individuals saving files to include information associated with the file, or “intelligence.”
While it is important to capture metadata, the file name is typically the worst place to include attributes of the content. As a hypothetical exercise, let’s pretend the file name for a particular manufactured assembly includes the model number of the product where the assembly is used. If engineering decides to use the same assembly on a related model (with a different model number), will the publications department update the file name accordingly? Probably not.
While this is a simplistic example, using intelligence in a file name, whether to facilitate search or for some other well-meaning objective, inevitably results in conflict, confusion, or unnecessary work to maintain.
It is much easier to set up a system where the file name simply uses the next available number or some other arbitrary convention. This system allows all respective attributes to be applied as metadata.
There will never be confusion in the case of a one-to-many relationship if you are diligent in keeping intelligence separate from file names. And you will avoid the unnecessary work of maintaining file naming conventions that are based on some descriptive aspect of the content.
Best practices for structured data suggest that you should leverage software to manage the attributes of a file or data element. Consider the file name to be the equivalent to a “key” in a database. A file name in structured publishing should simply be a unique identifier. Don’t be lured by the appeal of making it mean something more.
Choose Your Storage Wisely!
Most companies have a huge assortment of software tools, databases, server locations, and so on, which offers multiple feasible locations to store important information. Depending on the type of information, there are clear advantages in storing the data in a specific location.
Let’s consider a scenario in which text-based data is stored within an engineering drawing. Maintaining this information in CAD is significantly more expensive than managing the same data in text-based databases. Revising data in CAD requires skilled, highly compensated resources (usually in short supply), and also involves more demanding workflows to implement changes.
Obviously, high-quality models and drawings require CAD; however, text-based information is better suited for storage in other applications.
One example occurs when OEMs place vendor information on a drawing. This practice is not suggested, even if a part or assembly is sole sourced. Instead, vendor data can be captured in an ERP system, and then programmatically applied to a related purchase order. If a new vendor is eventually contracted to supply the part in question, the time difference in maintenance is profound.
With regard to electronic parts catalogs, including text-based information in an illustration is similarly detrimental. Use software that has appropriate places to capture text-based data. It is always easier to update a text field than an illustration. This ideal is readily apparent if the text field has many instances of re-use.
Furthermore, combining data elements such as the illustration and text attributes limits the functionality of relational database behavior if changes need to be made on one element rather than both elements simultaneously. Combining elements like this negates one of the major benefits of implementing a database publishing system.
Don’t Combine Data Elements!
Manufacturers employ a number of common strategies to increase publishing efficiency. Some of these strategies endure, even though they were born in an unstructured world.
For instance, consider a parts list matrix within a parts book that shows what the corresponding part is for each model. In other words, one page is detailing all of the parts within the machine assembly for all models. While this was extremely effective when creating standalone PDF-type documents, it is incredibly constraining in a structured publishing environment.
With structured database publishing software, tying multiple data elements into a rigid form severely limits the ability for the relational database to manage the data. Each data element needs to be distinct.
This rule of thumb also applies to our earlier example of placing text-based information within an illustration. Another common error of this type is placing metadata (or information that can be captured in metadata) within a description field.
It is incredible how many unique strategies creative publishers have invented in order to save time. While these approaches may have been advantageous in the past, and may still offer short-term benefits, these “benefits” eventually add up to an opportunity cost that manufacturers cannot afford. Continuing legacy practices that are incompatible with new technologies is guaranteed to create havoc when a modern system is inevitably adopted.
It may be time to pause and sharpen your axe before swinging at the trees. Are the “keys” to your relational database unintelligent? Are you using the most efficient location to store corresponding data? Are all of your data elements discrete? If you answer, “No,” to any of these questions, you have great opportunities to maximize efficiency in your current—and future—publishing tools.
Digabit’s CEO recently shared with the company a market research report from Cisco, The Digital Manufacturer: Resolving the Service Dilemma. The central theme of the report is that manufacturers have traditionally been focused on products as their core business, but that to maintain or achieve growth these firms must transition to place more emphasis on service-based revenues.
Why is that? As product design and engineering have become more sophisticated, reverse engineering to replicate products has evolved as well. That means manufactured products are becoming less differentiated, and more commoditized. Why purchase a Caterpillar loader if you can buy another machine with similar specs, and many of the same sub-components, for 20% lower cost? In the past, brand reputation may have provided an answer to that question, but today’s B2B consumer is increasingly brand-agnostic.
Today, the answer to what machine to buy may depend more on the strength of a manufacturer’s after-sale service and support. Caterpillar offers a wide spectrum of service plans and products to keep customers’ assets in top operating condition. So, they can potentially pitch a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) over the 10-20 years of service life of a typical heavy machine. We have seen at least one heavy equipment manufacturer shift their emphasis from selling machines to “selling” uptime.
It’s all well and good to point to improved services as the path to greater profits, but in reality the expansion of service offerings generally leads to increased complexity and costs. According to Cisco, the solution to this dilemma is to digitally transform the organization, from R&D to supply chain to CRM.
Interestingly, when manufacturers were asked which digital technologies would have the most impact on production over the next three years, the top three picks were cloud technologies, IoT/M2M, and data analytics. The interesting part is that robotics and 3D printing did not make the cut, and that companies are most focused on optimizing data analysis and connectivity.
How does Digabit’s Documoto platform fit into the digitization of manufacturing and service delivery? Machines are constructed from parts and assemblies. These components start their lives as digital data in a CAD design application, but once they go into production much of the associated product metadata is stripped away. Documoto retains the relevant digital part information and stores it in a structured database format.
So, if a forward-looking manufacturer wanted to connect a specific set of parts to a new predictive maintenance application involving machine-to-machine communication, they could develop an integration with the data in Documoto to identify the part, check inventories, and even order the needed items after analysis. One of Digabit’s existing customers has already built a diagnostic tool with similar functionality.
Go check out Cisco’s report, and then think about how digitizing parts data might fit into your long-term digital strategy.