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Facebook, Twitter and similar platforms exist to facilitate the creation of online communities that are willing to share information in real time in order to achieve a goal. Given that definition, there's perhaps no better example of effective social networking than the online forums of leading automation companies.
Machine and robot builders seem to agree, as evidenced by our March 2012 cover story ("A Little Change"), which surveyed readers for their opinions on social media and other subjects. The survey revealed ambivalence and outright neglect for most social media. For example: "A rather unambiguous 97% of this year's study respondents say they've never gone to a supplier Facebook page."
But forums were an exception to the negative opinion of social media: "Bulletin board/forum use consistently pulls a 15% weekly use and 34% occasional use; that number has been unchanged in the four years of the study."
"Forums/bulletin boards are best for me," said an engineering manager for a manufacturing company in India in that March cover story. "Companies are not yet using the forum/bulletin board medium fully. Personally, I would prefer if all my suppliers maintained forums with open access, because when you have a problem/query, chances are someone already has encountered it and someone else already has answered it."
As one example, AutomationDirect's customer forum (forum.automationdirect.com) has been up and running since 2006. It has about 24,000 registered users, with about 50 of those users typically active at any point in time. Registration is free, quick and easy — and comments can be posted instantaneously with no vetting from AutomationDirect.
In theory, customers could interact directly with a supplier or with a distributor, but many users prefer the immediacy and peer group interaction of an online forum. "The AutomationDirect Customer Forum is one of the biggest and best user groups in the automation world," says Bill Dobiesz, maintenance supervisor at American Label & Tag in Westland, Mich.
American Label & Tag uses a variety of machines to provide services to the digital print-on-demand market. One of these machines, a hot stamp press, was retrofitted by Dobiesz with an AutomationDirect control system. "There were helpful replies from the AutomationDirect tech people, to be sure," Dobiesz says. "But the ground-zero, hold-my-hand-and-walk-me-through-it advice I needed was from other forum members. I'm happy to share my information with others; I'm known as DetroitSound. Maybe I can help someone who is struggling as I was, so that they too can get the personal triumph of solving a problem of their own."
Judging from Dobiesz's response, many neophyte users seem to need answers to basic questions before contacting a supplier or a distributor with product-related inquiries. Getting this type of information through an online forum seems to be an ideal way for many to gain this knowledge, from both the viewpoint of the user and the supplier.
Another leading online automation forum can be found at forums.ni.com. The National Instruments (NI) forum has been up and running since 1999, and it has more than 175,000 registered users, with about 57% of the questions answered by other users, and the remaining questions handled by NI staff.
"Using our forum, our customers can get free online help with technical questions," notes Emilie Kopp, social business program manager at NI. "They also can get famous, as active members who provide valuable answers can build their online reputation and be seen as thought leaders. Finally, our forum participants can expand their peer-to-peer network by using the forums to seek out and find like-minded individuals who may be working on similar applications, even though they might be located on opposite ends of the world."