If you're a typical design engineer, you probably spend much of your time on the Web hunting for specific products and the companies that make them. But even though most engineers say that the Internet has speeded up their design cycle times, surfing the Web can be a lot like the million monkey problem. Only by sifting through a huge number of websites will you find the one that has the information you are looking for.
Design engineers spend the majority of their time on the web (84%) doing research -- much of it spent hunting for product and company information.
Two websites—www.globalspec.com and www.thomasregister.com—are specifically designed to help engineers find product and company information quickly. Both are popular with the technical community—over 100,000 engineers are registered users of Globalspec.com and close to 1 million are registered users of Thomas Register.
So how good are these websites at combating the million monkey problem, and what are their differentiating characteristics? I decided to find out, by asking the developers about their particular strengths and missions, and by logging on to the websites and conducting a search of my own.
I chose to look for manufacturers of linear motors, primarily because this product category can be broken down into several subcategories and there is a manageable number of vendors (as is not the case with an extremely broad category like motors). Also, like lots of engineering components and technologies, "linear motor" is a challenging product to do a search on. The nomenclature isn't always universal, and manufacturers of linear actuators, linear stages, linear positioning systems, and other companies who don't actually offer linear motors often get thrown into the mix.
Having compiled my own list of linear motor makers for a magazine article in the recent past, I can report that the results served up by both websites were credible. The supplier listings included most of the major and many of the minor players though there were differences between the two sets of results due to different website strengths. (See below for detailed comments.)
In the future, I'll plan to use both websites when I'm looking for product and company information. Each has its specific strengths, and the fact that the results my search produced were not exact duplicates of each other makes me feel that I will increase my chances of getting the most comprehensive information.
Both of these websites offer other services as well, including the ability to browse on-line catalogs and specs, link directly to manufacturers' websites, and download CAD drawings.
Launch date: June 1996
Basic philosophy: Chairman and co-founder John Schneiter got the idea for GlobalSpec while working as a program manager in GE's corporate R&D facility. Recognizing from experience that few resources exist to help engineers identify technology solutions in the early stages of the design process, Schneiter focused on developing a database of products that is searchable by product specification. Engineers can go to GlobalSpec and locate particular products and manufacturers by keying in specific product features and technical parameters. In the case of motors, for example, engineers can specify such attributes as thrust force, maximum acceleration, and motor force constant. "By defining products by their mechanical and electrical properties and feature sets, GlobalSpec allows engineers to explore all the degrees of freedom without first having to lock down the technical specifications," says Schneiter.
Number of product categories: 13
Number of products in database: 590,000 products
Number of supplier listings: 18,000
Number of registered users who are engineers: 112,500
Number of visitors: 2.1 million page hits/month
Frequency that site is updated: Every two weeks
Registration required? Yes. Users must register to search product categories and supplier names. Registration information is only shared with vendor companies when a user clicks on a vendor's website link or sends an e-mail.
Search results sorted by: Alphabetical order
Best when conducting searches for: Sensors and motion control technology—particularly early in the design process, when specs are not locked down. Results are best when searching for discrete components, as opposed to systems.
Comments: GlobalSpec site developers have clearly put effort into developing a taxonomy that reflects the language of the design engineering community. The definition provided for each product category is useful, particularly when you consider the number of products that go by more than one name! Without specifying any particular type of linear motor or features, my search produced a comprehensive list of 35 company names.
Launch date: January 1995
Basic philosophy: With more than 2.8 million registered users, Thomas Register has successfully extended its 100-year-old print publication to the Web. Whether in print or digital form, the company strives to maintain its goal of providing the world's most comprehensive industry database, which currently includes some 173,000 company listings. In September 2001, www.thomasregister.com launched the first major redesign of its website. "The goal is to get content to engineers in as few clicks as possible," says Tom Marren, Internet marketing manager. Users can conduct a search by product, company, brand name, and product category.
Number of product and service headings: 72,000
Number of supplier listings: 173,000
Number of registered users who are engineers: 925,000
Number of visitors: 10 million page hits/month
Frequency that site is updated: New company listings added monthly/updates to existing listings added weekly
Registration required? Yes. Users must register to search product categories. Registration information (which can be edited first) is only shared with vendor companies when a user sends them an e-mail.
Search results sorted by: Advertisers listed first (by size), followed by free listings (which appear in random order)
Best when conducting searches for: A specific company name or product, brand names, company names by geographical region, broad and tangential searches.
Comments: My search for linear motors provided the option to search any of six related product headings (linear motor driven stages, linear actuators, etc.). That's a useful function for performing tangential searches, particularly when you're not exactly sure of the specific product category you're looking for. Also useful: If no match is found, users can opt to do a text search for keywords over the entire database.