Mining the web for product information

DN Staff

March 20, 2000

6 Min Read
Mining the web for product information

In an effort to speed product development, design engineers head for the Internet to find specific information. But engineers who link through the "Products" section on many sites frequently find that the information lacks the necessary details to make buying decisions.

When they need more than broad-based product information, engineers turn to the familiar catalog, which is increasingly available online. About 85% of the sites for industrial products and components reviewed for this article now provide catalogs in electronic form. The appeal, of course, is that online catalogs are readily available.

The more easily catalog information can be obtained, the more engineers tend to go back to a particular site. In fact, when searching sites with similar product lines, engineers tend to revisit sites that are easy to navigate quickly. So anything a vendor can do to help decrease the search time for an engineer is helpful.

Converting catalog pages to html files takes more time and effort on the part of the manufacturer, but offers some key benefits as well. For example, Alpha Wire supplies every one of the 392 pages of its Master Catalog in html format. According to company spokesperson Sandy Jaouen, this format speeds access to the individual catalog pages; allows each page to interact quickly and accurately with the company's product search capability; plus allows for future development of product inventory and purchasing information.

Selector guides. But catalogs do have their limitations. According to Gary Storm, design engineer at ITW Heartland, a manufacturer of precision gear inspection equipment for the auto industry, "If I have a catalog in hand, I can flip to an index faster than I can download the information off the Internet. What I can't do easily is compare specs and make a quick decision."

To meet this need, many manufacturers now offer selector guides online. An extension of online catalogs, selector guides further support the buying decision process. Rather than forcing an engineer to search through a catalog index or table of contents, a selector guide quickly finds one or more products that meet the proposed requirements. These refined search engines are becoming very popular among engineers.

"The primary reason for using a selector guide is to help narrow the product options once you have the design details," says Storm. "When I go to the Internet, I have already decided on the part I need-it's really the latest details I'm after." Storm typically searches using key words rather than part numbers or catalog pages. In this way, any recently introduced products also come up in the search.

Selector guides offer levels of intelligence that range from a broad-based product category search (toggle switches) to multi-question searches that lead to a specific product (a UL listed, flat-panel toggle switch, rated for 1A). Well-designed selector guides, such as Southco's Zoom, allow engineers to search, compare, and select products quickly and easily using key attributes.

Southco, which manufactures a broad line of latches and hinges, put much thought into the Zoom product search, seeking to replicate the thought processes of design engineers. Zoom first asks the user to select from five product categories, then proceeds with other questions, ultimately reducing the number of potential candidates from hundreds to a handful. Once the search is complete, the final selection of alternatives can be compared via links to spec sheets. At this point, a quick review is often all an engineer needs to make a buying decision.

The selector guides reviewed for this article typically ask fewer than five questions. For example, Switch Wizard on the C&K Components site features only three questions to narrow the number of choices to just a few: Mounting Type (PC, surface, panel); does the application require process sealing (yes or no); and Switch Type (rocker, power, d-sub, etc.). On the Haydon Switch & Instrument site, users can go so far as to select and order motors after answering just four questions: motor type, voltage, windings, and quantity. General motor specs are quickly available on corresponding catalog pages.

The Alpha Wire site allows visitors to determine the exact wire, cable, or tubing product they require. Users search for the appropriate product in three ways: Enter a known Alpha Wire part number and be immediately linked to a catalog page; Enter the known specs, including gauge size, conductor count, voltage, etc., to get a matching Alpha Wire product part number (the part number then links to the catalog page for detailed information); Or, users can enter a competitor's part number and quickly get an equivalent Alpha Wire part number.

The drawback to most selector guides is that they are limited to a company's own product line.

Catalog houses become a valued resource when multi-vendor information is required. These product distributors, like Allied Electronics, W.M. Berg, and Newport Electronics, provide extensive supplier and part lists. Such sites sell products via the web and, once a product is ordered, can track shipments online.

Free software downloads are one way in which catalog houses provide extra value. W.M. Berg's site, for example, offers SprocketSpec (4.1MB); GearSpec (4.6MB); Dimension Calculator (2.8 MB); and Caliper Dimension Calculator (2.8MB).

Keep in mind, however, that in the end the more refined and clear the needs, the better any web site is able to help.

E-serviceCenters align extended product development teams for the business of engineering

By Allen Johnson, HP Technical Computing Div.

In order to dramatically improve operational performance for demanding product-development applications, product manufacturing companies must extend the traditional role of IT support for engineering and product management applications to support the entire product lifecycle. Solutions such as Hewlett-Packard's e-serviceCenter for Engineering enables manufacturers to harness the power of the Internet, fostering collaboration among dispersed contributors to product development and delivery.

The HP e-serviceCenter is both a super-charged technical computing center and a platform for secure web-based collaboration across the extended design/supply chain. For technical computing applications, the e-serviceCenter offers application performance, high-speed connections, security, and enhanced administration tools.

The e-serviceCenter delivers a suite of tools for demanding technical computing environments and web-based product development. These include:

  • Engineering analysis, simulation and product data management applications

  • Web capabilities: security, request routing, load balancing, DNS, web caching

  • Client and product data storage, access, and workflow control (database, PDM)

  • Collaboration tools

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