How Automation Professionals Use the Web for Their Jobs

Survey Reveals the Online Tools Engineers Use to Research Products and Solve Problems

By Sarah Cechowski

In 1989, a scientist for CERN set out to find a simpler way to organize documents across multiple computers using HTML.

More than two decades later, no amount of gratitude is too much for Tim Berners-Lee, the scientist who developed the World Wide Web that we as consumers and professionals rely on daily to share information, conduct research, and stay connected to everything and everyone.

Control Design has conducted this annual audience study for seven years now. The 2012 results showed that not very many of our respondents were changing their approaches to the way they research automation products and make purchases.

However, there is one slowly accelerating change we see in the results year-to-year: the ways industry professionals use the web to help them do their jobs better.

Over the course of 2012, I spoke with machine builders and system integrators at the Assembly and Automation Technology Expo, International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) and Pack Expo to find out what online tools industry professionals are using, not only to research and buy products, but also to solve on-the-job technical challenges.

Interviews with machine builders from the tradeshows and data collected from respondents in this year's survey give us additional insight into how the web is transforming the automation industry (See Pie Charts I, II and III).

Poor Navigation/Information
It would be uncommon to find a supplier that doesn't have a website hosting its product information today. In 2012, 34% of respondents listed suppliers' websites as their primary source for product research. This year's results increased to 57% for most-used method of specifying automation and controls products.

But what good is a supplier's website if you have trouble navigating through it to find the information you're after? Asked what challenges they faced when researching products on their suppliers' websites, many automation professionals at IMTS expressed their frustration with the "lack of navigation" that would eventually lead to making or breaking their overall experience.

John Einberger, proposal engineering manager for machine builder Makino, says he works with numerous cutting-tool suppliers that say their information is available online. He knows the site contains the information he needs, but site navigation can make it more challenging to find an answer quickly.

"Say I need to understand how much horsepower it takes for the machine to create this feature using their tool," Einberger says. "The information I need is always there, but depending on how user-friendly the website is, I might be more inclined just to send an email to the  representative of that tooling company. I not only might find the answer faster, but there's an opportunity to get a more complete, accurate response that addresses my unique needs."

Last year, 23% of respondents said they preferred to meet or speak directly with their automation supplier's technical engineers or product managers. This year, that number grew to 42% as their most-used method, and 44% said it is their second-most-used method. We saw similar growth in responses that indicated they mostly preferred to meet or speak with local distributors. The number increased from 27% last year to 36% this year.

Use of suppliers' websites as machine builders' primary method for doing product research increased just one percentage point from 2011 to 2012. So the 23-point increase we saw in this year's survey from 2012 tells us that industry professionals turn to their suppliers' websites first when researching and specifying automation and controls. However, like Einberger, they will choose to meet or speak directly with their automation suppliers as their second-most-used choice (44%) when they can't find the information they're looking for.

Machine builders say site navigation isn't the only factor that discourages them from doing a majority of their product research online. Individuals also want to know to whom they're speaking, according to Joseph Kemple, CEO of MAE of America, formerly German Machine Tools of America (GMTA). His company stays away from using online tools such as webinars because there's no direct contact with the person on the other end, he says.

Information listed on vendor websites does not contain enough product-specific content, notes Mark Maichel, product design engineer for machine builder Sunnen, and James Stolo, application engineer for distributor Boldt Machinery, which works exclusively with DMG. "Most everybody now has their websites and their information on there, but when it comes to application-specific, it's usually that we're working one-on-one with an individual," Stolo says. "The information that's provided [online] is or can be very generic. It's hard to relate it from one customer to another."

For instance, Sunnen replicated a machine originally designed by Caterpillar that required the company to go directly to the manufacturer to discuss specifications, Maichel says. In this case, Sunnen needed to know what the measurements of Caterpillar's hydraulic cylinders were so they could replicate the design. However, if he is not working with a specific product, most of Maichel's research for products such as motors and light curtains is done online.

There are several other alternatives to supplier websites available online that machine builders say are useful. Only 6% of last year's respondents said they used search-independent, non-vendor websites such as automation communities and magazines as their most used method for researching and specifying automation and controls products.

This year's survey numbers grew to 26%, with respondents indicating brands such as Control Design and Control Engineering as the most popular choices, followed by Control, Control Global and Machine Design.

One Step at a Time
Developing better search strategies and techniques becomes more efficient as users become more knowledgeable of the web's infrastructure. We learned from last year's study that 88% of respondents believed they improved their search processes. This year, 89% say they are making progress in their search methods.

But how helpful is the content they find, and do the results give them the answers they went digging for originally?

Although 67% of our respondents agree the first page (sometimes more) of results contains well-focused hits, other results expose frustrations machine builders face when looking for answers. We had 51% of respondents agree that there are too many results that have nothing to do with what they're looking for, 47% who agree that too many of the results contain outdated information, and 53% who agree that much of it is biased vendor product plugs (See Table I).

Creative Content
The types of content generated from online searches include articles from publications, news sources and vendor websites, social media, videos, online forums, technical articles/white papers, blogs and product images (See Table II).

So which of these online tools do machine builders find most useful — and not so useful — for researching products?

SEE ALSO: Machine Builders Use Alternative Resources to Solve Problems

Technical articles and white papers are a favorite of 80% of respondents, followed by online articles from publications, news sources, vendor websites, etc., at 69%. Images came in at 28%, YouTube videos were used by 26% of respondents, and blogs were used by 11% (See Pie Chart IV).

Some machine builders say YouTube is growing in its usage because it allows users to watch the full design process. Webinars are not used as heavily, but are helpful to machine builders for similar reasons, particularly when they're organized by the manufacturer. "I partake in webinars with groups that we're trying to pair up with for different projects," explains Tom Pasterik, manager of applications engineering for 3D printer builder ExOne. "We use webinars to contact other companies or hold conferences."

Pasterik says that when doing competitor analysis of a product, he takes full advantage of YouTube videos, webinars and images, and will set up a table to compare information he finds. He watches several YouTube videos to get new ideas when he has mechanical-based projects (See Bar Graph II).

Online forums came in just about even with images at 26%, and remain one of the most controversial social communities available on the web among machine builders because it's easy to find answers to questions, but might not be so easy to trust the information because of anonymity.

In our July 2012 issue, Senior Technical Editor Dan Hebert wrote about the growing trends in machine builders choosing online forums over other types of online communities to share information. In his article "Automation and Social Networking," machine and robot OEMs and their suppliers indicated that they have been adapting to the digital transition for years through the social communities that online forums facilitate.

While in college, Pasterik says, his instructors would encourage him regularly to participate in forums such as the Institute for Building Technology and Safety (IBTS) to join topic discussions. However, since graduating, he has strayed away from using them professionally because of the lack of credible information posted by users. He says that online forums create a community for product-based discussion and opinion, but users often copy and paste information they find from other websites, leaving other users to question if they can trust the content.

Makino's Einberger says he likes using online forums to find out if other engineers are having the same experiences and to see if anyone can provide creative solutions to unique cutting challenges. However, he agrees with Pasterik that credibility is an issue he often faces when using them.

"The cautionary note on online forums is everybody who posts something on a forum believes they have the right solution," Einberger says. "But that may or may not be the case. No two cutting challenges are the same, and what works for one person may not be the right solution for another. You just need to be mindful of this and careful when applying the information you obtain from a forum."

Jeff Lafleur, controls engineer apprentice for Serpa Packaging, says he uses online forums more often when he looks for solutions to an on-the-job problem vs. product information. He prefers to use Google because the search engine produces a large selection of results that contain ongoing discussions in online forums, where industry professionals are talking about the same problem he is having. He uses forums such as Allen-Bradley's TechConnect and also uses independent sites such as PLCTalk.net and PLCdev (See Bar Graph I).

Social + Media = ?
Whenever Control Design asks automation professionals if they use social media tools, many simply say they don't use Facebook and Twitter. It seems the term social media has lost its original meaning by becoming affiliated with only the most popular sites used today.

Media is defined as a collective medium that is used to communicate and transmit information. Sites such as Facebook and Twitter were developed to facilitate communities where people could interact and connect. If online forums, blogs and webinars were created with the same purpose, it seems that they, too, should be considered forms of social media.

Our survey results showed that 43% of respondents use online forums when looking for answers to technical problems. Blogs came in at 16%, followed by LinkedIn discussion groups at 13% (See Pie Chart V).

YouTube is a free, open-source social platform that allows anyone with an account to share information globally. "I didn't think YouTube was [considered social media] for the longest time, but I see so many more people are commenting, blogging and throwing out different links underneath people's videos," Pasterik says.

Executive Editor Jim Montague discovered in our Q4 2012 Industrial Networking cover story "Can Automation Users Solve Social Media?" that more control engineers have been seeking answers to on-the-job problems from their colleagues through online chat rooms, discussion groups and other social media tools such as Control.com, LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Yet Montague found that the drawbacks to using these types of social media tools were consistent with the concerns industry professionals have about online forums and blogs: They lack moderation and credibility, along with protection of a contributor's applications and intellectual property.

Serpa's Lafleur agrees social media use is currently limited in the automation industry because of proprietary information that companies do not want shared. However, he believes that if existing social media tools became more developed and adopted by users in the industry to create a central area for news updates and product reviews, it could hold more value in the future (See Pie Chart VI).

The most recent graduates entering the workforce right now grew up using social media tools to interact and communicate, and now use them not only for personal use, but professionally for their jobs (See Table 3).

SEE ALSO: Young Professionals Map Careers

Social media sites such as Facebook allow people to share what they're doing with others and let others see what they are doing, Pasterik says. He has already begun using Facebook to see what other product manufacturers are developing, and foresees the "wall" feature on Facebook being used to generate discussions.

"There are more upcoming graduates in the field that are starting to push for [social media]," Pasterik says. "I've been working with a lot of younger companies and students, and a lot of them are my age. They blog, use forums and Facebook constantly about their products. They see the benefits from it" (See Pie Chart VII).

Sam Strickling, academic broad-based research marketing manager for National Instruments, relies on social media daily for his job to interact with design students that he mentors. He uses webinars such as Harvard Studies for job-related research and LinkedIn to connect with students that he helps to find jobs. He's also a big advocate of forums. He uses Stanford America, TechWorld, Jive and Jove to find answers to on-the-job questions he has and for personal research.

Google+ is a growing social media site that Strickling uses heavily for meetings with technical researchers to share documents and thoughts, and also to create surveys. "It's a great way for me to get a survey up and running very quickly," he says. "I use [Google+] probably more than any other social media sites besides LinkedIn."

As newer graduates come into the automation industry, more tools will become adopted, agrees W.B. Bronander III, president of Scandia Packaging Machinery. However, as someone who started in this industry before the web was readily available, he still prefers to read technical material for his job in print.

"In my generation, nobody has time," Bronander says. "Right now, the biggest thing is having [younger generations] that understand how that works to make tweets, do the social media thing, do the interaction, understand how it works and how it should be presented."

Kevin Heikkinen and Gino D'Alessandro, account managers at Fives Cinetic, hold opinions similar to Bronander's about social media. They don't watch webinars or video demonstrations or use podcasts, online forums or blogs for doing research for their jobs because they prefer to read print material — a method they've used their entire careers. Their skepticism of social media tools is similar to other machine builders who say there is no way of knowing if information posted is credible or fabricated. They do, however, agree that social media will become more incorporated into the automation industry as the next generation of engineers fills jobs.

MEA's Kemple says he's become more interested over the years in learning about the concept of social media and the types of social media tools next-generation engineers are using professionally. He's found that many use LinkedIn, but has not heard many say they use Facebook or Twitter professionally.

"I'm keeping an open mind on social media," Kemple says. "I've heard of people using Twitter even at events. The engineers I have spoken to are not there yet, but I'm constantly talking to young guys and asking, 'How are you guys getting information?'"