Everyone, as The Beatles so famously crooned, gets by with a little help from their friends. In engineering, a friend can often take the form of a tool—a software package or material data sheet, for example. Tools, of course, are only good if they are easy to use. As every engineer knows, some tools are so confusing they can actually make it harder to do the task they supposedly were designed to facilitate.
One type of tool that is showing up frequently on web sites is the product configurator. Configurators are specialized software that guide engineers through the steps required to pick the right product from an individual vendor's many offerings to solve the design problem at hand. Configurators can be very helpful, says engineer Jim Stanko of Kennametal, the Latrobe, PA supplier of metal-cutting tools. "But they have to be well designed." Among the attributes that make for a well-designed configurator, he says, are ease of access to the configurator itself and the information it provides. He has used some configurators that fail the ease-of-use test. "Some configurators are so confusing that you need an applications engineer to figure out what you need," he says.
There are configurators in every technology. We checked out a few available to engineers involved in fluid power and industrial machinery. The configurator provided by Clippard Instrument Laboratory (www.clippard.com) seemed particularly easy to use, and complete.
Clippard's tools are easy to find: They are prominent in two spots on the company's home page. Clippard has configurators for everything from mouse valves to stem valves. As a test, we decided to try the stainless-steel-cylinder configurator.
Like many of its competitors, Clippard offers a wide array of cylinders, and choosing the right one for any specific application can be tough. This configurator makes it easy.
After clicking on the configurator button on the home page, we went immediately to a screen that simply asked for bore size. A pull-down menu offers choices ranging from 5/16-inch to 3 inches. Once we selected the right size, the configurator asked us to select from a variety of options: the mounting type, cylinder type, and rod type. The choices popped up as soon as we selected the bore size. After we made the choices from the respective pull-down menus, voila, the Clippard part number appeared on the screen. Total elapsed time: less than 10 seconds.
With the part number in hand (or, on the screen), we selected a standard stroke (we could have selected a custom stroke), and then got a list of options, such as seals, bumpers, and ports. At the bottom of the screen was a button for viewing the cylinder. On the viewing page, we could also choose to see the flow controls, exhaust valves, cylinder circuits, or cylinder cutaway. All in all,the experience was fast and complete.
The website, of course, has plenty of other technical information, such as a comparison of polyethylene vs vinyl vs polyurethane for hose tubes and fittings. But the configurators themselves are what have helped Paul Margosian, quality engineer at Branson Ultrasonics (www.bransonultrasonics.com).
"The cylinder configurator is foolproof," says Margosian. Among the things he likes about it is the list of accessories that pop up. "The list shows not only what's possible, but also what's not possible by graying out those accessories that won't work with the specific product," he says.
"The more facts a company can give me through the configurator, the better off I am, " Margosian says. "It saves me time and cuts out the middleman."
Reach Teague at firstname.lastname@example.org.