Machine Builders Show Little Change in Product Buying Habits

Some of the Web-Based Methods Available to Do Automation Product Research Still Hold Little Currency for Many Machine Builders

By Joe Feeley

Whether it's money, time or resources, it usually isn't wise to invest heavily in a new approach until you have a better sense of the potential value it can bring. Sometimes there's not much change at all in the beginning.

Month-to-month change might be unperceivable. Even year-over-year data might not reveal true patterns. It can take longer to find the emerging trends.

That's what we learn each year we conduct our audience study to summarize their product research preferences and buying habits, including adoption of methods such as social media and Internet-based video and audio options. There is no mistaking it's a rather leisurely amble toward greater levels of change among this group.

Here in the early stages of our second decade of the new millennium, more user-friendly websites and greater bandwidth give web-based product-research options legitimacy alongside traditional product catalog and distributor-centric methods for machine-automation specifiers.

We first started to ask the Control Design audience about its preferences in 2006, and have added questions as research options grew in subsequent years.

Digital Tool Destinations
The slowly accelerating affinity for use of webcasts as a source of research looks to have temporarily idled. In 2008, 16% of respondents said they used webcasts occasionally. This year it's a clearly better 29% — but that's identical with the 2011 finding, with the biggest support (54%) coming from the 30–39-year-old study participants. Although there's been little change in those who claim more frequent use than monthly, those of you who say you've never used webcasts for your job dropped to 4% compared with 26% in 2008.

Product videos and machine automation videos are one category that shows an increased acceptance by this audience — occasional level of use has grown past 40%, compared with about 14% in 2008.

"Videos about products or vendors help me evaluate their capability and competence," says Gary Cash, vice president of design services at Wynright Intralogistics in Elk Grove Village, Ill. "You should collect links to videos in one place. I view them as I see them. It would be nice for Control Design to sponsor/list a series of videos showing products in a similar way so they can be compared (similar to CNET Reviews). If this exists, I haven't found it."

Podcasts remain largely ignored by nearly nine of 10 respondents, although occasional or better frequency of use doubled since 2008.

The trend for blogs can be termed "encouraging." Although our respondents still make no regular use of them for their jobs, the segment that says it reads blogs occasionally has inched up to 23%, from 19% in 2008. The "never" group remains at 11%, but that's a significant change from a 29% bloc in 2008.

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. It carries most support — about 44% occasional or better — among the 20–39 age groups.

"Forums/bulletin boards are best for me," says an engineering manager for a manufacturing company in India. "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 has already encountered it and someone else has already answered it."

A technical project leader at a packaging goods manufacturer in Massachusetts agrees. "Forums generally help me the most as they are a good source for strange problems," he says. "Podcasts are usually too long and boring, and don't relate to my projects, and in general are just a plug for a specific company."

This sums up a number of typical responses: "None [of these tools] are bad; they just don't fit my needs. I can't take time out of my day for a live webcast, social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn) are blocked at the office, and most of the videos/podcasts that are downloadable are nothing more than sales pitches."

A surprising number of respondents are either unaware of or don't find enough "on demand" content, particularly as it affects webcasts. Many say they can't make the time for a live webinar presentation. This might be a message to the supplier community that you're not making the archive option clear enough in your promotions.

"Of these choices, I use some supplier tech support forums when I am doing a project with their stuff from time to time," says a study respondent who works for an electroplating company. "But my first choice is just to call the manufacturer's tech support line where that is available or encouraged. A very few vendors offer webcasts that are actually useful in helping me use all of the capabilities of the product. The only time I use webcasts is if a vendor has a webcast available for on-demand viewing after the initial presentation. The rest of this stuff is just useless blather and a waste of bandwidth, as far as I am concerned. I do not use Facebook, Skype or Twitter."

We asked about more-recently emerging social media as product information delivery tools. About 70% of the respondents don't use Twitter for any purpose, although that's an improvement from 79% last year, and one in 20 report occasional or more frequent use.

A rather unambiguous 97% of this year's study respondents say they've never gone to a supplier Facebook page. Of those that commented about it, almost all of them didn't realize that suppliers had them. Other Facebook use shows similar results, with 9% saying they have some occasional job-related activity with it.

Happier Relationships?
In the seven years we've conducted this study, we've asked about the stability of the participants' supplier relationships. We learned again this time that more than half of the responders changed a supplier for one or more primary automation component in the past 12 months (Table II).

This time, 57% said they've made a change or changes in the past year, up slightly from the 55% we found last year, and the remarkable 62% result in the midst of economic instability in 2009.

Controllers, sensors and OI/HMI products showed the most churn, while safety components and mechanical components had the least supplier turnover.

For the first time, price is no longer the most-mentioned reason to change suppliers. It remained at 29%, but quality/performance was noted by 33% of the respondents, up from last year's 24%.

Your Favorites
We always ask study participants about their primary method for doing product research (Table III). The use of vendor websites significantly again outpolled the use of local distributors as the single most-preferred method. Meeting directly with the manufacturers' product experts ranks third.

"I am fortunate that when I need something, I make a call to my local distributor engineer and somewhere between 20 minutes and 24 hours they are here to see what I need and we get the order placed before they even leave the building," says Ray Bergeron, an engineer with many duties at Geiger, Lewiston, Maine, the company that's been printing the Farmers' Almanac since 1878. "If I do get stuck on my own and have to do my own research, I need a website that shows the product, shows some application examples, and at least shows a list price. If they don't have these, I move on."

When asked where on the web they start if they don't have a specific vendor or brand in mind, 79% of respondents named Google. That's an increase from 73% last year. Asked what they considered the best non-vendor website for their product research, 25% of the respondents to this unaided question couldn't name one, and 30% insisted on naming Google again; 6% named GlobalSpec and 5% touted Wikipedia. ControlDesign.com was named by 10%. Many other sites garnered admirers, but none reached the 5% threshhold.

Over the past several years, study respondents seem to have grown a little happier with global search methods than they have been before (Table IV). Again this year, nearly 90% of the respondents agree with the statement that they've gotten better at search strategies and techniques.

What Makes a Site Good?
To learn what this audience judges to be a useful supplier website to do product research, we asked a few open-ended questions and, not surprisingly, we received many thoughts. We did the same for determining what they think is a non-helpful site.

"Make it easy to find and compare products," Wynright's Cash says. "Have tech specs available on the site, because I probably have a very specific use for this product and want to know if it will do the job."

Picking through the data reveals a few other common thoughts about supplier websites:

  • Users want easy-to-find access to product manuals, specs and technical explanations, not marketing points of view. Make them downloadable as PDFs if desired.
  • They don't want to have to understand a supplier's part numbering system.
  • They should be able to easily access pricing information. Don't make them register to get it.
  • Few are OK with providing contact information early in the process. Many say it's a barrier they won't cross.

Figure 4: The Search for a Well-Tuned Engine"Give me immediate access to engineering data without having to fill out a request form or give my family history," says our electroplating engineer. "The needed information should be available on the website and should be accurate and up-to-date. A bad site usually means having to complete a 'request form,' which almost invariably leads to a time-wasting sales phone call that is not needed during the initial phases of selection. I will call if I want to talk to a sales or, more often, tech support person. I've seen bad sites where the needed detailed engineering data is not available even after filling out a form. If I must call to get questions answered and another supplier offers complete data easily available online and their product is suitable, I put them in the spec."