It’s Good to Have Options

Our Annual Study Says You Like a Full Bag of Clubs for Conducting Product Research

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By Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief

This study marks the fourth year that we’ve asked our Control Design audience how it researches, specifies and buys machine automation products and services. With an expanding choice of methods—some effective, some less so—at their disposal, we wanted to learn whether the tools of the trade are changing significantly for these tasks.

We use much of what we learn here to get a better sense of how to build content that helps you do your job. In previous years, it also has brought out issues that the supplier community needed to address to better serve your needs.

Strained Relationships

We again asked the study participants about the stability of their supplier relationships. This was a surprising finding last year with 52% saying they had changed primary suppliers for one or more product categories in the past 12 months.

This time, it’s higher. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they’ve changed a primary supplier in at least one product category. Table 1 indicates that the churn is higher in every category, with 40% this year saying they’ve changed their primary supplier of controllers.

Given the number of respondents on the move, we again wanted to know why. Of those who changed suppliers for at least one product category, 38% cited price as a reason. This compares with 22% who said that in ’08. Twenty-nine percent cited product quality and performance problems. Most of the other listed reasons—quality/performance, open-standards preference, poor service—changed very little from the 2008 numbers.

These People Need People

Each year we ask about our participants’ primary method for doing product research. We now have four years of data in this area. Table 2 summarizes the findings this year compared with when we first asked this question in ’06. This time we found a drop-off in the use of independent, non-vendor websites and a marked increase in direct contact with the manufacturers, compared with the ’06 data, and a slight uptick in the number of those saying the local distributor is the primary resource.

The percent of respondents who now say their primary research source is the Web, either to vendor sites or independent, third-party sites, stands at 37%, down from the 50% in ’06 and ’07 and 52% this past year. Are we finding some evidence of online backlash here, or a need to talk specifics in a fashion that the Web doesn’t offer well?

But They Do See Value

In our first product research study in 2006, we had respondents rate the value they assign to the various methods of doing product research. We asked them to do so again this year.

The peanut hasn’t moved too much as you’ll see in Table 3. Meeting/speaking directly with the manufacturers’ experts provides excellent value, according to 42% of respondents, who rated that method, by far the highest excellent rating given, and similar to the 46% awarded in ’06. Fifty-four percent graded it as a good resource this year, as did 51% in ’06.

Vendor websites provide excellent research value, say 30% of the respondents who rated the method this year, similar to the 27% who thought so in ’06. Good ratings were given by 59% this year and 61% in ’06.

The biggest movement was seen in the 29% excellent resource rating given to respondents’ local distributors, up from 18% in ’06. Only 12% rated the resource as poor, compared with 17% in 2006.

“The distributor’s representatives that I have a good working relation with are honest about the limitations in their knowledge of technology products. If I’m asking about applications beyond their knowledge, they will bring in manufacturer reps to discuss the product,” says a controls engineer from an Illinois packaging machine builder.

“Local distributors are easy to get ahold of when needed. Over time they get to know our company’s needs,” reports a project engineer at a Midwest consumer products manufacturer.

This comment is representative of those who don’t find local distributors as useful: “Sometimes they know what they are talking about, but many times they do not have the answers to specific technical questions about the products. They also are not visiting as often,” says an East Coast-based technical project leader for a packaging materials manufacturer.

“Most reps at trade shows are factory reps and do have good knowledge of the products that they support,” says the president of a Georgia-based consultancy. “Most of the time they have the product-line experts on-site, and I can get all types of questions answered without the filtered effect of talking through a rep or distributor,” adds another.

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