The Web provides a quick way for engineers to find products, but print catalogs aren't surrendering their role without a fight. Many engineers still like to grab catalogs, and distributors are quite happy to print and distribute thousands of pages of catalogs as a tool to drive business to the Web.
There's a common perception that print is disappearing as the Internet reshapes distribution for all sorts of products. That trend is definitively occurring. But paper still holds an appeal for many engineers, especially those who grew up creating holiday wish lists while paging through holiday catalogs. For them, searching the Internet can be a frustrating enterprise.
"I often grab a catalog, especially when I'm looking for a specific vendor or a specific part. It takes me a tenth of the time it takes to find something on the Web," says Dwight Bues, a system engineer at Northrop Grumman's Chantilly, VA facility.
His problem with the Internet is that it's rare to find exactly what he needs on the first try. It takes a few seconds to load each page on a website when he pulls up the wrong data sheet. In those seconds, he can look at several print pages. "I'm used to print, I've been using it for 20 years," he says.
Bues is far from alone, say those who ship catalogs that often exceed 2,000 pages. "Mouser still ships 270,000 catalogs every 90 days. Engineers want to hold them in their hands and flip the pages," says Kevin Hess, marketing director for Mouser Electronics Inc. of Mansfield, TX.
By some measures, the number of people who have dropped catalogs to use only the Web is small. "We have a relatively few number of customers, perhaps a few thousand, who have asked to stop receiving our catalog because they chose to use our Internet site exclusively," says Steven Tsukichi, vice president, Strategic Operations at Digi-Key Corp. of Thief River Falls, MN.
Though catalogs remain popular, they're typically used in conjunction with the Web. Bues "absolutely" uses the Web for research, and he usually goes online when he's ready to order components. Tsukichi says 60 percent of Digi-Key's orders come in over the Web.
What remains to be seen is how much longer print maintains its presence. The Web offers timeliness and other features paper catalogs simply can't match.
"I don't even look at books anymore, they're always out of date and you can't get pricing," says Rob Grant, a project engineer at Sunburst Chemicals of Bloomington, MN. "Even when I logged on using dial-up it revolutionized the way I look for things."
After getting his ME degree in the mid-1970s, Grant spent a lot of time poring over print pages in a room lined with catalogs. Today, online 3-D CAD tools and broadband let him design parts in, knowing whether they fit in half an hour. Back in the catalog-only age, getting an actual part he could test for fit usually took a day or two.
In the Internet era, engineers don't usually need samples to make sure the part fits into their design. A growing number of websites have CAE software that lets engineers embed the part in their files, ensuring that it works.
"All the pump makers have software that lets you build a virtual system," says Tom Halley, president of Robert Brown Assoc. Instead of distributing catalogs from 14 pump manufacturers it handles, the distributor from King of Prussia, PA, focuses on Web tools and personal contacts. "People still buy from people. Engineers will go to guys who lead them in the right direction," Halley says.
Eliminating the cost of paper catalogs is becoming more common. Some of the industry's largest component marketers have ended their publishing days. "We finally bit the bullet in 2003 and quit printing catalogs," says Linda Rigano, executive director of strategic services at ThomasNet. That was a huge change, the directory had 38 volumes, each about 3,000 pages thick.
ThomasNet researchers say engineers spend around 25 percent of their work week looking for information, most of it online. More than three fourths of the searches are focused, with at least three search words. Around half those who buy parts say they selected the company partially because of the online services they provide.
As it's become easier to be connected almost anywhere, many engineers are less inclined to walk to a library to grab hefty books. Carl Duffy used catalogs heavily at the start of his 20-year engineering career, but he rarely picks one up now. That's partially because the test engineer at Freescale Semiconductor doesn't buy many components. But that's not the main reason.
"It's just as easy to go directly to a supplier's website to get info as to find a catalog and search through it. If I know exactly what I'm looking for, I may go to the catalog when I'm ready to order. But if I'm doing a new design, it's much easier to search the Web," Duffy says.
But those who support catalogs feel even the occasional use makes it worthwhile to continue distributing paper source books. "We believe the catalog will be around for a very long time," Digi-Key's Tsukichi says.