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

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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.

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