Manufacturing companies have to purchase components, but for the design engineer, finding just the right part can be tough. The vast majority of suppliers still provide their product information in paper catalogs. But since the advent of the Internet, many engineers use general search engines as an alternative to paging through shelves of catalogs, and then get bogged down when faced with tens of thousands of results, most of them irrelevant to the given search.
ThomasNet Inc., part of Thomas Publishing—publishers of the Thomas Register—created a website named SoluSource (www.solusource.com) to make part sourcing much easier for engineers. Research shows that "engineers spend a third of their time searching and waiting for product information," says Scott Emerich, general manager of ThomasNet. "Valuable design time is lost to the administrative task of data gathering, and product information derived solely from an Internet search is frequently incomplete."
ThomasNet says it designed SoluSource to end such "frustrations." The website specifically offers sources of products from OEM manufacturers of mechanical and electromechanical parts. The service obtains product level detailed information from manufacturers, and identifies specific niche products such as gears, pumps, valves, and motors. No real overlap with the Thomas Register exists, the developer says, since SoluSource is far more specific.
The site provides exactly what its name indicates—-a solution for sourcing parts. Engineers can't purchase parts from SoluSource, but it does provide direct links to manufacturers' websites and other ways of reaching them directly to order components. SoluSource scans, indexes, captures attribute data, and integrates data into a search engine that makes it possible for engineers to use a combination of product attributes to find as much detail as they need. SoluSource also updates the data as new catalogs appear, keeping older information in an archive to make it easier for engineers to find alternatives to discontinued products. In all, SoluSource provides information from about 20,000 catalogs published by some 11,000 manufacturers. Having new and old catalogs easily available is particularly useful when looking for products from smaller manufacturers, says SoluSource, which says it has found that few manufacturers under $20 million have robust websites.
"Some manufacturers have very rudimentary websites," says Dick Becker, an engineer with Cincinnati Machine, Cincinnati, OH. "Sites like that will say something like 'we make 42 different products, call this number for sales support.' That doesn't give me much to go on."
Cincinnati Machine makes machine tools, heavy equipment, and products for the aerospace industry. Becker says the company found SoluSource when a sales representative called on them, more or less in the nick of time. "We had just moved our offices, and were upgrading our catalog files. We had hundreds of catalogs, most of them out-of-date, and we were getting frustrated when SoluSource came to call," he says. "It works really well. Like any new tool, we had to learn different software, which took a little time to get used to, but now it's easy. Being able to cross-reference products is one of the biggest advantages of the system. You can look up parts by the type of product, and get to see a wide variety of manufacturers' products. We've now bought from suppliers we hadn't known about before."
Becker also finds that he can narrow down the search by specifics. "For example, if we're looking for gears, I'd enter qualifying attributes, such as spiral bevel, and reach a smaller category specific to something I need at the moment," he says.
SoluSource makes it possible to search by function as well as product. For example, instead of specifying a pump, an engineer might look for a mechanism that moves water or air. In building its database, SoluSource mapped products by functionality along with keywords and attributes. This means that after identifying a product, an engineer can click a button saying "show me an alternative"— and possibly find a different way to perform a function.
Although Becker has not used the "show alternatives" function, others at Cincinnati Machine have used it, and "they've been pleased with it." In general, he says, "it's a good tool that meets its design criteria on products and different companies. Ease of use is built in—it's very user-friendly and lives up to what they say it does. SoluSource not only has catalogs, but also provides a direct link to a supplier's website—so it's easy to get technical information that's not in the catalogs." He has found one problem fairly frequently when he goes to suppliers' websites, however, and that is that they do not always respond promptly to e-mail queries. "That's not true for SoluSource. You can always talk to people on staff when necessary."
Meade Neal, manager of Mechanical Systems Development for Key Technology in Walla Walla, WA, also found out about SoluSource when a salesperson called. Key Technology manufactures capital equipment for processing and handling food products, especially with regard to optical inspection. After signing up for SoluSource, Neal says, "it's become our primary source of purchased components." He also uses it when the purchasing department contacts him with a request to find something.
"In the past, we had dusty shelves with dusty catalogs on them," he says. "Or else, we used a general search engine on the web, which isn't a very efficient use of time." In particular, he finds SoluSource very helpful for metric components. "We're in the process of switching to metric fasteners, and while these aren't too hard to find, it's terribly difficult to find plumbing fittings and thickness of steel in metric units when we need them," he says. "About 50% of our customers are in countries that use metric measurements."
Key Technologies tries to source parts relatively locally, because Walla Walla is off the beaten track, which raises the costs of components shipped to them. "We've found sources for parts that have to be changed during maintenance in countries that need metric replacements. But we keep inch-based parts in stock," he says.
Neal's team uses SoluSource based on the product description. If looking for a nut, an engineer will enter "nut, hex, metric," for example, and when SoluSource finds a source, the engineer checks out the site. "Engineers thinking of using SoluSource should expect to get rid of the catalogs on their shelves, and not have to worry about getting new ones. Although occasionally we've failed to find a particular supplier's parts, we've found plenty of alternatives. If you enter a company and a specific part number, you may not always find it—but you'll find something like it," Neal says.